China’s home-built passenger plane, rival to Boeing’s 737 Max, to join China Eastern Airlines fleet this year

Business & Technology

China Eastern Airlines became the first company to officially buy the C919, China’s home-built narrow-body passenger plane.

Oriental Image/Fei Ji via Reuters

China’s state-owned commercial planemaker signed a contract to sell the country’s first home-built large passenger plane, the C919, to China Eastern Airlines.

China Eastern, the country’s third-largest airline, expects to receive five of the narrow-body aircraft from its developer and manufacturer, Commercial Aircraft Corporation (COMAC), with the first plane arriving later this year.

  • China Eastern plans to assign the five C919 planes to domestic flight routes connecting Shanghai with major cities, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Xiamen, Wuhan, and Qingdao.

The C919 shoulders China’s ambition in civil aerospace and is expected to “break foreign companies’ duopoly in the large aircraft industry,” according to state-owned newspaper Global Times.

  • The C919 will compete with other medium-range aircraft from the world’s two leading plane makers –– the Boeing 737 Max and the Airbus A320 –– in China’s commercial aircraft market, which will be worth roughly $1.3 trillion (in Chinese) in the next 20 years.
  • The Chinese narrow-body aircraft has 158 to 168 seats, and is priced at (in Chinese) around $80 million, lower than the Boeing 737’s $135 million and the Airbus A320’s $110 million.
  • COMAC has received provisional orders (in Chinese) to sell 815 of the C919 jets to 28 airlines or leasing firms, the majority of which are from China.

COMAC has strong government backing, including from Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 himself (in Chinese).

  • “If we want to become a strong country, we have to strengthen the equipment manufacturing and the large aircraft industry,” Xi said during a visit to COMAC in 2014. “(China) needs to spend more money on the R&D to make our own large aircraft.”
  • Large aircraft manufacturing, together with integrated circuits and aircraft engines, are the three key fields that the central government is prioritizing in its effort to push for domestic innovation and self-independence, the head of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said last August (in Chinese).

The C919 still relies on foreign technologies for some essential parts, while COMAC this January was added to the U.S. Defense Department’s blacklist of companies deemed to be linked to the Chinese military.

  • Foreign joint ventures in China provided the vast majority of the C919’s in-cabin equipment, while the aircraft body used more domestic suppliers.

In relevant — if not directly related — news: “Beijing isn’t ready to follow the United States in allowing Boeing’s 737 Max back into the air after a pair of fatal crashes two years ago,” reported the Associated Press today.