COMAC C919 – Emerging Challenge to Existing Players

The C919 is set to significantly change the narrow-body airliner segment in the next three years or so when its deliveries commence

Issue: 6 / 2018By Group Captain A.K. Sachdev (Retd)Photo(s): By Nexcelle

The narrow-body, single-aisle airliner market has been a duopolistic one for over two decades with Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families driving it across the globe. Enhancements to these two basic models kept the market alive and competitive over the years until both decided to re-engine their steeds while retaining their basic design. The results are the A320neo and the Boeing 737 MAX and their versions with new engines and minor design changes promising up to 15 per cent fuel saving. The parallel moves were aimed at avoiding the high risk and investment in designing new aircraft altogether although a Boeing initiative on ‘Middle of the Market’ aircraft is underway to find a solution to bridge the gap between a narrow-body and a wide-body and their corresponding ranges. The narrow-body segment is a hotly contested and lucrative one and there are new players wanting to enter. A moderate disruption was caused by Bombardier’s sale of 75 C-Series aircraft to Delta Airlines in 2016. Last year, Airbus pulled off a coup of sorts by acquiring a 50.01 per cent stake in the Bombardier’s prized C-Series airliner programme without any upfront investment. The deal is expected to land the entire C-Series programme in Airbus’ lap in around five years. While the basic Airbus A320/Boeing 737 designs are focused on the 180-seat cabin layout, the C-Series has a 100-seat version (CS100) and a 160-seat one (CS300). The Embraer challenge in the arena offers 88-seat, 106-seat and 132-seat variants of the E-2 family. Boeing is seriously looking at a deal with Embraer akin to the Airbus-Bombardier one. The Mitsubishi Regional Jet has an 80-seater and a 92-seater in terms of a weak challenge. A similar player is the Chinese ARJ21 with 90 seats. Russian company Irkut is also working on two versions of MC-21, one with 165 seats and the other with 211 seats. This article looks at China’s C919, a serious contender in the narrow-body space which, with a 168-seat cabin version and a modern design, appears set to muzzle its way into the narrow-body space in the near future.

THE C919 DESIGN

The C919 is manufactured by Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), a Shanghai-based company, which was formed in 2008 and functions as the main aircraft manufacturer for large civil passenger aircraft programmes. Its internet site declares that it adheres to the principle of “development with Chinese characteristics” — to bolster China’s claims of self reliant technological progress. Chinese sources refer to the C919 as a “trunk liner” and COMAC itself terms it as “a short-medium range commercial trunk liner”. It has a layout of 158 to 168 seats and a range of 4,075 to 5,555km. According to COMAC, the economic life of the C919 is designed to be 90,000 flying hours/30 calendar years. COMAC claims that the fuel consumption and direct operating cost-per-seat-per-km would be lower than that of “similar existing airplanes” (read Airbus A-320 and Boeing 737).

The cost of the C919 can be expected to be competitive on account of lower costs of production in China

Both Pratt & Whitney and CFM International offered to provide engines for the C919. The latter was finally selected. CFM International, a joint venture company between GE Aviation of the United States and Safran Aircraft Engines of France started the Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion (LEAP) programme in 2005 incorporating technologies that CFM developed as part of its LEAP56 technology acquisition programme. The engine was officially launched as LEAP-X on July 13, 2008, the year that C919 programme was launched, as an intended successor to the CFM56 family popular with contemporary narrow-body, single-aisle aircraft. The other contender for that segment is Pratt & Whitney PW1000G. The LEAP family has three variants: 1A which powers the A320neo and produces 24,500 to 35,000lbs thrust, 1B for the 737MAX family which produces 23,000 to 28,000lbs thrust and 1C for the C919 with 27,890 to 30,000lbs thrust. As can be seen, the C919 engine (LEAP 1C) produces more thrust than the Boeing 737MAX one (LEAP 1B). Chinese AVIC Commercial Aircraft Engine Co was also tasked with developing an indigenous engine to be used with the aircraft. Its ACAE CJ-1000A was unveiled at the 2012 Zhuhai Air Show; but there is no news of its integration into the C919 yet.

CURRENT STATUS

A total of six aircraft are planned to be produced for the over thousand compliance verification tests necessary for certification. The first aircraft, AC 101, rolled out on November 2, 2015 and the first test flight took place on May 5, 2017. In November last year, it carried out its first inter-city flight to Yanliang, Xian, a distance of about 1300km. The second aircraft, AC 102, flew first in January this year. The programme has suffered delays and the current projection for the delivery of the first aircraft to a customer is 2021, five years beyond the original target of 2016. If the first delivery takes place in 2021, it would be 13 years after the launch of the programme. One reason for the delays in flight testing is that Shanghai is one of the busiest airports in the country.One reason for ferrying out the first aircraft to Xian is that it can be tested there in a less crowded airspace.

MARKET PROSPECTS

According to the COMAC News Centre, a total of 785 orders have been booked for C919 from 27 domestic and foreign customers, largely Chinese airlines. However, airworthiness certification is a problem as of now and likely to remain for some time. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) certification is easily obtained; but is not accepted by most nations outside China. An application for type certification was made to European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in April 2017; but there is no news of an application to US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). In the absence of any international certification, the C919 could not fly to the Singapore Air Show this year, which is something COMAC would have loved to do to improve its market prospects. Incidentally, China’s 90-seat ARJ2, which obtained its Type Certification from CAAC in 2014 and Production Certification in 2017, is yet to obtain EASA or FAA certification and hence is flying only in Chinese airspace with Chinese users in limited numbers. The prospects for C919’s certification appear a little brighter on account of the several American and European stakeholders in the C919’s success. GE is one of C919’s contractors, supplying onboard maintenance and flight-data recording systems through a joint venture with Aviation Industry of China. The plane’s engines come from CFM International, GE’s joint venture with Safran Aircraft Engines. Other suppliers include Honeywell International and United Technologies Corporation. COMAC also has orders for the jet from GE Capital Aviation Services, an aircraft and engine leasing company. Hopefully, these connections will provide a lobby to progress C919 certification with EASA and FAA.

The A320neo with the Pratt & Whitney engine is passing through a difficult period with significant engine problems on aircraft already delivered to clients. The issue has not gone down well with users and the fact that Airbus hastened a bit into the delivery phase to outrun Boeing’s 737MAX has not done the A320neo prospects any good. The fate of the Boeing 737MAX with another Pratt & Whitney engine is not yet certain and time will tell whether the type also has problems similar to the A320neo. Should the C919 enter service and have no such problems with its LEAP-1C engine, it would augur well for its sales. The cost of the C919 can be expected to be competitive on account of lower costs of production in China.

CONCLUSION

As the traditional classification of airliners gets obfuscated by enlarged envelopes of narrow-body aircraft, the market is getting cluttered by new options. The largest of the Airbus A320 family, the A321LR, is now the longest range single-aisle, narrowbody airliner capable of carrying 240 passengers over a range of 7400km. Smaller single-aisle aircraft are filling the gaps between turboprop and A320/737 families. The advent of C919 is likely to imping on the A320/737 market prospects the most and its expected competitive cost is sure to create a ripple in the narrowbody space. The annual production was targeted at 150 planes by 2020. Even with delays in EASA/FAA certification, the supply to Chinese market will give it five to ten years within which to get its certifications through. During that period, the C919s will replace the A320s/737s in the Chinese market. To sum up, the C919 is set to significantly reorder the narrow-body airliner segment in the next three years or so when its deliveries commence.