Irish low-cost carrier giant Ryanair is in talks with Chinese company Comac to acquire the Comac C919 narrowbody and could order hundreds of aircraft, said the airline's chief executive Michael O'Leary.

"We have started discussions on pricing... if we do order, there is no point for us to order just a few, it would be over 200 aircraft," O'Leary told Air Transport Intelligence at a briefing in central Paris today, after signing a memorandum of understanding with Comac.

The agreement will see the airline working with Comac on the design of the C919. Ryanair is keen on a stretched 200-seat version of the C919, said O'Leary, who added that the C919 baseline model is "a little bit small".

The C919, scheduled to enter into service in 2016, can take 168 seats in an all-economy configuration. Ryanair's fleet of Boeing 737-800s have 189 seats each. "The extra 10 seats in a larger version of the C919 will help," said O'Leary.

The airline could start off by operating the baseline version, but Ryanair would eventually prefer a larger aircraft. "We could start with 20 to 30 aircraft at the start during the first or second year. We could take the baseline version first, as long as a bigger version comes along," said O'Leary.

Ryanair has about 30 more 737 deliveries to come until early 2012, but has so far failed to agree terms with Boeing or Airbus covering a further large aircraft deal. O'Leary foresees a need for new deliveries to begin in 2017.

While O'Leary said he is keen to see a third competitor in the narrowbody market, he acknowledged that Comac has its work cut out for it in terms of meeting the 2016 entry into service date.

"It will be a challenge for Comac. Can they meet that demand within China and the international market? But it's also an opportunity. They have to show they can compete with Airbus and Boeing," he said.

O'Leary dismisses criticism of the C919 programme, and believes the aircraft will be able to meet US and European safety standards, saying that the Chinese aircraft manufacturing industry is no longer a "laughing stock".

"I think it's [the criticism] rubbish. Will passengers fly on a Chinese aircraft? Of course they will fly on a bloody Chinese aircraft."

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news