Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Closer Look at the Comac C919 – Why Does it Exist?

- Photo: Jon Ostrower

A model of the Comac C919- Photo: Jon Ostrower

It’s no secret that China is one of the world’s largest consumers of narrow-body aircraft. It is also no secret that China wants to be seen as capable of developing its own commercial airline industry. The Comac C919 is the answer to their problem. Unlike the ARJ-21, this aircraft is a much more ambitious affair.

Though still mostly constructed from aluminum, the aircraft features composite materials — at least in the wingbox. The Comac C919 has garnered 450 orders prior to the first airframe being completed, with the first flight expected towards the end of the fourth quarter this year. It looks, to the untrained eye, as if this program is off to a promising start.

Unpack the 450 orders, however, and the picture starts to look a little different.

Cabin mockup of the 919 - Photo: Jakub Gorski | aeroblog.pl

Cabin mock-up of the C919 – Photo: Jakub Gorski | aeroblog.pl

Other than the twenty orders placed by GECAS, all the orders are entirely of the domestic variety. This leads to the question of whether or not this project has international credibility; it is a valid question.

There are plenty of international partners. Rockwell Collins is providing various avionics, the engines will be of the CFM LEAP variety and, most important of all, there’s the nondescript Bombardier cooperation (the last, which seems to change based on the day of the week). There are no current details, of late, for all of us on the outside who know that the C919 will no longer share a common flight deck with Bombardier’s CSeries.

Flight deck mock-up of the Comac 919 - - Photo: Jakub Gorski | aeroblog.pl

Flight deck mock-up of the Comac 919 – Photo: Jakub Gorski | aeroblog.pl

Again, at face value, Comac’s goal of breaking the Boeing/Airbus narrowbody duopoly is a noble, if not extremely challenging, task. The problem arises as to whether that is actually the case. With China’s strange crypto-capitalist economy, the central government loves to use American or European aircraft orders as a means of correcting a trade-deficit. While they would still be importing the avionics and engines from around the world, the overall value of those components pale in comparison to the whole. Perhaps, then, the goal of constructing the C919 is one of national interest. Nothing wrong with that at all; China is the fourth-largest country by land area, has an expanding middle class, and is the second-mostpopulous country.

China’s air travel market is white-hot and they need planes – now. But wait, you say, why is there an Airbus factory in Tianjin if China is making its own A320-sized aircraft? While the Tianjin facility assists in meeting the near-term air travel demand, COMAC is realistic; new aircraft take a while to ramp up. One type, let alone two types, could never satisfy all of China’s narrow-body demand. It gets even more complex. There’s a strategic element in play. Not only does China want to be taken seriously as an economy, they want to be taken seriously as an innovator technological powerhouse. To get there, your nation needs to prove that it can produce state-of-the-art anything, especially aircraft. The C919, in a broad-strokes way, is a matter of national pride.

- Photo: Jon Ostrower

A model of the C919’s frame – Photo: Jon Ostrower

But are airlines and lessors only ordering it because they have to? That’s the mystery, isn’t it? No one can tell you anything about what this aircraft will actually perform like from not only an aerodynamic perspective, but in-service projections are also missing.

With a mixed (12J/144Y) capacity of 156 and the exact same cargo hold dimensions as an A320, we can say that it should perform, in some ways, like an A320. After all, it features one of the engines that has been offered for the A320NEO.  However, I have learned to never take any proximal statements at face value. Will numbers change with in service data? Unlikely.

Mock up of the first class cabin onboard the C919 - Photo: Jakub Gorski | aeroblog.pl

Mock-up of the first class cabin onboard the C919 – Photo: Jakub Gorski | aeroblog.pl

While the Sukhoi Superjet is not just garnering international orders, it is netting follow-ons and option conversions. There is still a huge stigma regarding Russian planes being unsafe or somehow inferior to manufacturers from other platforms. Chinese airliners, while less numerous throughout the globe, suffer even lower in international esteem.

Previous Chinese endeavors such as the Xian MA60 have been decried in the Western press as dangerous; a fate also not escaping those who operate the Harbin Y-12. Some even go so far as to call them “deathtraps”.  The sad question is, will Western consumers want to fly on a Chinese plane even if it is constructed to the five-years-ago standards of the West? There’s an argument to be made of whether anyone will care if the price is right, but if something terrible were to happen to one of these planes carrying Americans – it would be game over.

- Photo: Jon Ostrower

Close up of the Comac C919 – Photo: Jon Ostrower

It gets worse; on top of the cultural issues of exporting a Chinese airliner, it becomes a money game. If, and this is again an entire unknown, the C919 is cheaper than a 737MAX or A320NEO, will the cost average out in terms of lifetime fuel-burn and maintenance?

Even then, how is this aircraft being financed? We know that China loves to offer discounts to the developing world. How does their export financing work? I am not asking questions for the sake of fear mongering, it is just that this aircraft program exists in shades of grey.

It’s always a great thing to see a new entrant into the market, but this one feels like it is designed not to fill the global niche of mid-size, narrow-body aircraft. Instead, it seems to be designed to fill the need of urgent lift for the Chinese market. But, I feel that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The first C919 is slated to fly at the end of this year, with entry into service not yet disclosed. I look forward to flying on it one day — I would have no hesitation.

 Bernie Leighton – Managing Correspondent 

Bernie has traveled around the world to learn about, experience & photograph different types of planes. Bernie will go anywhere to fly on anything. He spent four years in Australia learning about how to run an airline, while putting his learning into practice by mileage running around the world. You can usually find Bernie in his natural habitat: an airport.

 @PowerToTheThird | Flickr | bernie@airlinereporter.com

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