China crosses milestone with C919 flight, but has a long way to go

Millions of flights take off and land in China every year, almost all of them using planes made by Boeing and Airbus, the world’s two leading aircraft manufacturers. For years, China has worked to change that, and this week it celebrated a milestone in that quest: the first commercial flight of a large airliner made in China.

The C919 jet, made by COMAC, a Chinese state-run aerospace manufacturer, flew about 130 passengers from Shanghai to Beijing for China Eastern Airlines on Sunday, according to Chinese state media. It is currently the only C919 aircraft used for commercial flights.

COMAC, or Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, was established in 2008. Based in Shanghai, it is closely linked to AVIC, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, which makes the country’s turboprops, fighters and bombers. The C919 is a narrow-body aircraft comparable to the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320.

Aerospace experts said China faced stiff competition from the established rivalry of US-based Boeing and Airbus, a European company with national stakes in France, Germany and others. The two have dominated the sale of aircraft worldwide for years.

Speaking to reporters this week at a Boeing factory in North Charleston, SC, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun called the C919 a “good airplane” that would eventually satisfy domestic demand in China, but said it would take a “long time” before the country built up enough production capacity to cover these needs.

Mr. Calhoun spoke from a room overlooking a handful of Boeing 787 jets that were in the final stages of production, including one bearing the logo of Air China, the nation’s flagship. He said he was confident the global market could accommodate a third major producer.

“Three suppliers in a growing global market of this size and scale should not be the most terrifying thought in the world,” he said.

China remains an important market for Boeing and Airbus.

Last year, about 42 percent of China’s more than 4.1 million scheduled domestic flights used Boeing planes, and 54 percent used jets made by Airbus, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider.

Airbus, which entered the Chinese aerospace market in 1985, said in April it would build a second assembly line at its factory in China and was given the green light to move forward with orders for 160 planes. It has around 2,100 aircraft in service in China.

In 2019, Boeing’s 737 Max was banned globally after two crashes killed 346 people. Before these accidents, about one in four new Boeing planes went to China.

But Boeing’s sales in China have suffered in recent years. Commercial flights aboard Boeing’s 737 Max resumed in China in January, about two years after the plane began returning to service around the world, including in the United States.

Mr Calhoun said Boeing would support the country as more of China’s citizens began flying again as the economy recovered from strict Covid restrictions. But recurring tensions between China and the United States mean Boeing’s relationship with China will evolve in “fits and starts,” he said, adding that there would be plenty of business for Boeing anyway.

“What is life without China? It turns out that life will be good. It’s not how we want it, but it will be fine, he said.

He added: “We should stay focused on the competition we have and try to win that technology race. And while we’re doing that, stay in league with what China is ultimately doing.”

COMAC relies on US and European suppliers to make the C919, including the engine and many components necessary to power and control the aircraft. The company has said it plans to eventually start making 150 C919s a year, although analysts are skeptical about COMAC’s production capacity, especially after years of delays in producing the plane in the first place.

The C919 has not yet been certified for use on international flights, but over time could fill a growing demand in China for single-use aircraft in domestic flights. By 2030, China is expected to need about 4,800 jets like the C919 for regional travel, according to Herman Tse, an analyst at Cirium.

If the company is able to ramp up production of the C919, he said, COMAC could become a popular choice for Chinese airlines and carve out a chunk of the market, but it would still lag behind Boeing and Airbus.

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