China Crosses Milestone With C919 Flight but Has 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 been working to change that, and this week it celebrated a milestone in that quest: the first commercial flight of a large passenger jet 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 plane being used for commercial flights.
COMAC, or the 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, fighter jets and bombers. The C919 is a narrow-body plane comparable to the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320.
Aviation experts said China faced stiff competition from the entrenched rivalry of U.S.-based Boeing and Airbus, a European company with national ownership stakes held by France, Germany and others. The two have dominated the sale of planes worldwide for years.
Boeing’s chief executive, Dave Calhoun, speaking to reporters this week at a Boeing factory in North Charleston, S.C., called the C919 a “good airplane” that would eventually satisfy domestic demand in China, but said it would be “a long while” before the country built up enough production capacity to fill those needs.
Mr. Calhoun spoke from a room overlooking a handful of Boeing 787 twin-aisle jets that were in the final stages of manufacturing, including one bearing the logo of Air China, the country’s flagship carrier. He said he was confident that the global market could accommodate a third big manufacturer.
“Three providers in a growing global market of this size and scale should not be the most intimidating 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 airplanes, and 54 percent used jets made by Airbus, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider.
Airbus, which entered the Chinese aviation market in 1985, said in April that it would build a second assembly line at its factory in China and got the green light to move ahead with orders for 160 planes. It has about 2,100 aircraft in use in China.
In 2019, Boeing’s 737 Max was banned globally after two crashes killed 346 people. Before those 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 started to return to service around the world, including in the United States.
Mr. Calhoun said Boeing would support the country while more of China’s residents started flying again as the economy recovered from strict Covid restrictions. But recurring tensions between China and the United States mean that Boeing’s relationship with China will progress in “fits and starts,” he said, adding that there would be plenty of business for Boeing either way.
“What’s life without China? It turns out life will be OK. It’s not the way we want it, but it’ll be OK,” he said.
He added: “We should stay focused on the competition we have and try to win that technology race. And as we do so, keep ourselves in the league with respect to whatever China ultimately does.”
COMAC relies heavily on U.S. and European suppliers to make the C919, including its engine and many components necessary to power and control the plane. The company has said it plans to eventually start making 150 C919 planes a year, though analysts are skeptical about COMAC’s production capacity, particularly after years of delays in producing the plane in the first place.
The C919 has yet to be certified for use on international flights, but could over time fill a growing demand in China for single-aisle planes in domestic flight. By 2030, China is expected to need some 4,800 single-aisle jets like the C919 for regional travel, according to Herman Tse, an analyst at Cirium.
If the company is able to increase its production of the C919, he said, COMAC could become a popular choice for Chinese airlines and carve out a piece of the market, but it would still lag Boeing and Airbus.