But does the Chinese Comac C919 plane really put the Airbus-Boeing duopoly at risk?

With the sign “A new reliable choice” the area dedicated to the C919 — a single-aisle aircraft made by the Chinese state manufacturer Comac — attracted more people than usual to the Singapore Airshow running until February 25. This time, more than one person says, it’s not because of the desire to see up close a model that currently only flies in China. But to understand if it is a valid — and safe — alternative to the Euro-American Airbus-Boeing duopoly. At least in Asia.

Who ordered it

During the industry event in Singapore Tibet Airlines ordered 50 aircraft from Comac: 40 C919 jets and 10 Arj21 (for regional routes). But this is a Chinese customer, just as the previous ones were also Chinese: Air China, China Eastern, China Southern. The road to international recognition, particularly for the C919, is a long one. Not only because the aircraft is only authorized to fly in China, but also because it depends heavily on Western technology.

The Western giants

And yet a series of factors could “facilitate” Comac’s business. The production lines of Airbus and Boeing are booked for the next ten years: anyone who needs new aircraft quickly should knock on the door of the Chinese manufacturer, because Europeans and Americans are full of orders. Even the supply chain problems created due to the pandemic and which are still present do not help Airbus and Boeing. Boeing’s missteps — like the panel ripping off the fuselage of Alaska Airlines’ 737 Max 9 in flight — don’t make for good publicity.

The comparison

Then there is the economic question. The C919 — which closely resembles the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 Max 8 — costs less. The list price — net of discounts — sees 120 million dollars for the A320neo, 121.6 million for the Boeing 737 Max and 99 million for the C919. Not only. The aircraft is made by Commercial Aviation Corporation of China (Comac), a public company, and will therefore continue to benefit from Chinese state aid, in addition to the $72 billion invested by Beijing to develop the model.

The certifications

But the good news for the C919 ends here. At the moment the plane can only fly to China. In fact, it can’t even fly over other airspace. Not only that: the regulatory authorities in Europe (EASA) and the United States (FAA) do not authorize the aircraft to move in their areas of competence. The Chinese sent the first request for certification to the Old Continent in July 2016, but EASA wants the aircraft to accumulate thousands more flight hours (in China) and then prefers to study all the data in detail before being able to approve it in Europe.

Security agencies

This authorization stall in the West leads other aviation authorities — in the Middle East, South America, Oceania and even parts of Asia — to wait to give a green light accordingly. “It’s as if no one wanted to take on the responsibility of flying the C919 in their own country for fear of consequences in the event of an accident caused by the Chinese plane”, he explains to Courier an insider.

The numbers

Comac leaders do not speak to Western media. What has filtered out in the past months tells of orders and reservations for around 1,200 C919 aircraft. According to data provided by the specialized platform ch-aviation, the figure would be less than 600 – all requested by Chinese companies – and of these, 4 have been delivered and are flying on behalf of China Eastern. The first commercial C919 connection was made less than a year ago, on May 28, with 130 passengers on board.

The reactions

Christian Scherer, CEO of Airbus’ commercial aircraft division, tells journalists that he is in favor of competition, so Comac’s is also welcome. But, he points out, “the C919 resembles the existing offering from Boeing and Airbus” and therefore he doesn’t think it will “move the market significantly”. On the other side of the ocean, a Boeing spokesperson simply comments that competition from Comac “is good for the sector”.

Western instrumentation

In the background, however, Europeans and Americans are sharpening their weapons. Not only for the issue of state aid which would violate international trade rules. But also because the C919 works thanks to Western technology. From the Cfm Leap-1 engines (made by the French-American consortium Cfm International) to the avionics (by the American companies Honeywell, Parker Aerospace), from the instrumentation in the cockpit (by the American Eaton) to the tires (by the French Michelin) up to the system anti-icing of the wings (supplied by the German Liebherr). According to a document from the Center for strategic & international studies, the Chinese aircraft relies on 48 American suppliers, 26 European, 6 from Asia-Pacific.

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