On November 2, 2020, China flew its COMAC C919 at an airshow for the first time. It seemed like it was capable of impressing the audience, but can it do the most important task: break the Airbus-Boeing duopoly?
This no-small mission was baked into the fabric of the C919 from the beginning. “C919 comes after Airbus and Boeing so you will have ABC in the aviation industry,” chief designer of the jet Wu Guanghui said back in 2009. The development of the aircraft had just started, the hopes were high, and the maiden flight was set to happen in the not-so-far future of 2014.
Of course, it did not happen so. The development was beset by all kinds of problems, including accusations of commercial espionage from the Western partners, and the first C919 prototype managed to take off only in May of 2017. Then, it had to wait for five months before the second flight, and then wait some more, as it was stopped by technical problems again.
A lot has happened between 2009 and 2017, and it might explain some of the C919’s problems. The launch of the Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737 MAX for one, which set a higher bar in efficiency. As a result, COMAC, dead set on the previous generation of Western narrow-body airliners, and forced to delay their “answer”, was left with an outdated set of goals.
This, coupled with ever-mounting technical challenges, resulted in a sub-par airplane by contemporary standards. Nowhere it is as apparent as in comparison with the capabilities of its competitors. Sadly, reliable data on the C919 is hard to find – even the amount of its variants fluctuates between six and two depending on the source and the specifications of anything beyond the base model are simply non-existent.
The base model, as can be seen from the chart below, stands in proud solitude in comparison with not only the latest Western narrow-body jets (neo and MAX), but even the previous generation (ceo and NextGeneration (NG).
It carries a similar amount of passengers, but as for range, it has more in common with regional jets like the Embraer E195 than any of the competitors that were outlined by Wu. A slight hope can be put into the long-range (LR) model that might have specifications similar to the Boeing 737 NG variants from the mid-90s, but its passenger capacity is pure speculation – according to COMAC, it will carry “over 100 passengers”. Quite likely, the impressive jump in range will be achieved by modifying (shortening) the airframe accordingly.
Of course, the range is not the only parameter an aircraft can compete by. There is a good argument in saying that the C919 is aiming at the niche currently unfilled by Western jets, and is optimized for ranges of around 4,000 kilometers. There are barely any popular domestic routes in China exceeding that range. If COMAC is aiming to break the Airbus-Boeing duopoly at least in the domestic market, it has to offer something more efficient for Chinese carriers.
The C919’s efficiency is another big question. COMAC’s promotional material states that the aircraft will have fuel consumption and direct operating costs lower than those of competing airplanes; its LEAP-1C engines, developed by Safran, are projected to burn 10-15% less fuel than anything mounted on the 737 NG and the A320ceo. Yet when the A320neo and the 737 MAX came with their own LEAP-1s – A and B respectively – fuel burn reduction of 15-16% was their main selling point, indicating that whatever lead the C919 may have had, was already wasted.