While China’s Comac may already be looking to the long-term future with its proposed ’C939’ widebody programme, the state-owned airframer appears to be focused on the more pressing need to ramp up output of its C919 single-aisle.

To date, just four examples of the CFM International Leap-1C-powered narrowbody have entered service – all with China Eastern Airlines – since the twinjet gained certification in September 2022. 

Comac C919 China Eastern (c) BillyPix

Source: BillyPix

China Eastern is the only operator of the C919 currently

It has been a sluggish start for the Chinese narrowbody, particularly when compared to the soaring production rates of its Western rivals. Airbus, for example, is currently churning out more than 50 A320neo-family aircraft each month.

That the process has been slower than expected is not surprising, says Richard Aboulafia, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory.

“It is probably due to the difficulties associated with building conforming aircraft; a very different challenge than just flying a jet and getting it certified.

“That’s a much longer road, along with the enormous challenge of establishing a product-support apparatus,” adds Aboulafia.

Equally, with economic and geopolitical considerations always part of Comac’s calculus, the slow ramp-up may be by design, argues Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation consultancy Endau Analytics.

He thinks Comac is “in no hurry… not because it can’t”, but because it is “not in its, or China’s, interest to do”.

A botched ramp-up would be worse than a slow ramp-up, he says. Comac – and by extension, Beijing – “will be watching” the state of the global supply chain, as well as geopolitical developments, “very closely”, before moving to increase output.

“Its next steps will depend on what happens to Boeing near-term, over the next six to 12 months, as well as how [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to France could push Airbus into a wider role vis-a-vis aircraft production in China,” says Shukor.

However, Comac’s growing backlog for the C919 still needs to be addressed. That total was bolstered in late April, with the other members of the country’s ‘Big Three’ – Air China and China Southern Airlines – each ordering 100 C919s. Although Aboulafia doubts the carriers need those aircraft, deliveries are set to run from 2024 to 2031.

In fact, Cirium fleets data records Comac as holding almost 1,000 firm orders for the C919, with another 700 aircraft covered by more tentative agreements – a quietly impressive backlog for the programme.

To address that total, local media reports suggest Comac is looking to achieve an annual production rate of up to 150 aircraft within five years.

The figure is “a bit over-ambitious”, says Shukor, pointing out the ongoing supply-chain constraints all manufacturers face, but “not impossible beyond 2030”.

But there are indications Comac is working to enhance its production system. In a now-deleted social media post widely reported by local media, China Aviation Planning and Design Institute Group, an entity linked to state-owned enterprise AVIC, said it had clinched the contract for the “second phase” of the C919 “production capacity construction project”.

Located in the Pudong area of Shanghai, where Comac is also based, the project would see the facility expand to cover 330,000sq m (3.55 million sq ft), with an unspecified number of production lines and parts warehouses, reports suggest.

Comac did not publicly confirm these reports and the airframer declines to comment on FlightGlobal’s query on production rates, except to say it is working to increase C919 output.

Comac C919_Weibo

Source: Weibo

Against this backdrop, the news that the airframer may be contemplating the development of a second widebody programme is sure to raise eyebrows.

Comac is already working on the C929 – broadly speaking a rival to the A330neo and Boeing 787 – but the next project appears set to compete with the A350 and 777.

A report from Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post on 13 May, citing an unnamed source, says the airframer has developed design concepts for the new jet, but notes that it will take several years before any prototype is constructed.

The report gives no technical specifications for the new programme, such as the number of engines or capacity.

Comac declines to comment directly, saying obliquely that media should wait for official confirmation of its plans.