China Positioning C919 Passenger Jet to Take On Boeing, Airbus

washington — China’s state-owned plane manufacturer is facing industry skepticism over its claims that its newest passenger aircraft, the C919, can break the passenger-jet duopoly of Boeing and Airbus.

COMAC’s promotional tour through the fast-growing aviation markets of Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia ended in Malaysia on Wednesday, according to China’s official Xinghua news agency. At each stop, the Shanghai-headquartered enterprise presented its C919 to potential buyers as a viable alternative to the Airbus 320 and Boeing 737.

International and regional tourism is expected to reach, then surpass pre-pandemic levels in many Southeast Asian countries this year, according to analysts who cautioned that subsequent growth may hinge on China’s economy making a full recovery.

The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) expects the demand for passenger aircraft in the Asia-Pacific market to increase over the next two decades from 3,314 to 9,701 planes, according to Chinese state media.

But Skift, a travel industry research site, quoted the executive chairman of Air Lease, one of the largest aircraft lessors in the world, saying the company isn’t planning to buy any C919 jets.

“The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and COMAC are very interested in selling the C919,” said Steven Udvar-Hazy at the aviation industry’s Wings Club in New York on February 29. “But it’s a one-way dating relationship.”

Brendan Sobie of Sobie Aviation, an aviation industry consultancy in Singapore, told CNBC, “It’s still early days to know if COMAC can shake up the duopoly. … We are not likely to see a C919 overseas order of significance in the near term.”

As the C919 tour progressed, COMAC said its goal was to showcase the aircraft and lay “the groundwork for future market expansion in Southeast Asia.”

The C919 is certified only by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, which approved it in September 2022. The narrow-body jet entered commercial service with China Eastern Airlines last year in May.

COMAC says it has more than 1,000 orders for the C919, but most of those are from Chinese airlines and aircraft lessors. At the Singapore Airshow, COMAC took orders from Tibet Airlines, a Chinese entity, for 40 C919 single-aisle planes. Boeing and Airbus planes are sold out through the end of the decade, according to Bloomberg.

China has said it wants to secure broader international recognition for the C919 and plans on pursuing European Union Aviation Safety Agency certification.

Boeing and Airbus executives say they’re not worried about the aircraft that was shown for the first time outside China at the Singapore Airshow February 20-25.

The C919 is “not going to rock the boat in particular,” Christian Scherer, chief executive officer of Airbus’s aircraft commercial business, said at a media roundtable on the sidelines of the industry event.

Scherer added the C919 was a “legitimate effort” by China but is “not very different” from the Airbus and Boeing aircraft.

Dave Schulte, Boeing’s commercial marketing managing director for Asia-Pacific, said airlines in Southeast Asia may consider ordering C919s, according to Barron’s.

However, he warned that COMAC will face the same supply-chain disruptions as Boeing and Airbus as post-pandemic demand for air travel increases. Assembled in China, the C919 relies heavily on components, including engines, from companies outside China such as GE and Honeywell International.

After Singapore, COMAC took the C919 to Vietnam from February 26-29 for its own airshow followed by a two-week progression of shows in Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Tan Wan Geng, COMAC’s board chair, described Vietnam as an important international aviation center in Southeast Asia and predicted increased exchanges and cooperation between his operation and Vietnam’s aviation industry.

In Singapore, Tibet Airlines ordered 10 ARJ21 jets, the C919’s smaller predecessor, and China’s Henan Civil Aviation Development and Investment Group ordered six ARJ21s.


Cambodia’s State Secretariat of Civil Aviation Undersecretary of State and spokesman Sinn Chanserey Vutha said last week that Cambodia supported the entry of C919 and ARJ21 jets into the aircraft market.

“This is a good sign for the aircraft market,” he told China’s official Xinhua while attending the demonstration flight event.

Nguyen Thien Thong, a leading expert in aviation engineering in Vietnam, told VOA Vietnamese in a February 28 telephone interview that it is unlikely that airlines in Vietnam will purchase or lease the COMAC aircraft in the near future.

The founder of the Aviation Engineering program at Van Lang University said that adding one more airline supplier to their current fleets of Airbus and Boeing would complicate maintenance, management and operations while increasing costs.

“I don’t think it is effective,” added the former head of the Aviation Engineering Department at Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology.

Udvar-Hazy, the Air Lease executive chairman, pointed to a lack of support infrastructure needed to make the C919 commercially viable in international markets, according to Skift. He added the Chinese jet also lacks technical support training. 

“Without that,” he said, “there’s no export market.”

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