With the Comac C919, China intends to make its mark in the large airliner business dominated globally by industry heavyweights Airbus and Boeing. The scale of that ambition is evident in the fact that the company dates only to 2008, when it was formed of key businesses drawn from state-owned conglomerate AVIC, following a 2007 government decision to develop China’s first large commercial aircraft.
Today, more than 9,000 people – including 800 foreigners – are working on Comac’s aircraft programmes. Assembly of a C919 prototype is under way, aiming at an end-2015 first flight target. The 156-seat narrowbody will compete with the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. But Comac will do well to fly at all, given its lack of experience, and the programme is clearly under pressure in this fiercely competitive market. The aircraft is expected to enter service later than the A320neo and the 737 Max, and it has to stay on track to avoid losing even more time to competition.
There is however precedent for expecting further delay. Comac’s ARJ21 regional jet programme – whose sophistication has been likened to the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 – is years late and still not certificated.
Like the A320neo and 737 Max, the C919 will be powered by CFM International’s next-generation Leap engine, but otherwise, Comac’s customers cannot expect the aircraft to match the technology of these established rivals. The Chinese airframer, for example, dropped plans to build the C919 around a composite wing and wing-box, in a bid to keep its schedule reasonably intact.
Chinese ambition, however, remains bold. Though it is not committing to any timetable, Comac is talking about launching a widebody programme to fly around the mid-2020s.
More on Comac C919: