Is the COMAC C919 a Viable Option for Budget-Minded Airlines?

Aircraft and Innovation
Nick Cummins
min read
December 22, 2020

COMAC, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, has been making inroads in emerging countries with its range of aerospace offerings, from smaller turbojet aircraft to jet aircraft that could very well rival Airbus's offerings as well as Boeing's. One of these aircraft, the C919, is suited for operations for emerging countries and might very well be a more viable option compared to its equivalents the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. What is the C919, and what are the jet's advantages and disadvantages for emerging countries and budget-minded airlines?

What is the COMAC C919?

The C919 is the Chinese equivalent of the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320, the two most popular aircraft. It can carry 168  passengers in a single class or 158 passengers in the standard two-class layout. With American-made GE engines, it has a range of 4,075 km / 2,200 nautical miles, or if opting for the extended range with a bigger fuel tank, 5,555 km / 3,000 nautical miles. This format, which is tried and true at Airbus and Boeing, suits the emerging market and would revitalize any airline that deploys the aircraft.

The plane model is still undergoing flight tests, but engineers are confident that the first deliveries will take place in early 2021 to Chinese carriers. Nearly 1000 units of the C919 have been ordered throughout China (and twenty for the United States at General Electric as test planes). Once proven in the domestic market, COMAC will likely drive sales in other regions.

But the question remains if the C919 is a good aircraft for emerging countries and budget-minded airlines; let us examine some of the advantages of the aircraft.

Advantages of the C919

The major advantage of the C919 is availability. As the order backlog is significantly smaller than the Airbus A320neo series (and doesn't suffer from the Boeing 737 MAX grounding that will take years to resolve), the C919 can be in an airline's hands sooner than later. This means all the advantages of a new aircraft without having to wait or experience production delays - and thanks to China's reputation of mass production, you can bet that once the airframe is fully tested and rolling out, COMAC will be able to deliver rapidly.

The C919 Cockpit

Besides, the C919 is likely going to be cheaper. Thanks to ties to the Chinese government, COMAC can bend the trade rules when it comes to the C919 and supplement the capital required for airlines to buy the airframe over a Boeing or Airbus design. Emerging countries might be able to purchase two C919s for a single Boeing 737 or a single COMAC aircraft for the cost of a second-hand Airbus A320.

Lastly, if an emerging country can partner up with China for a nation-building project, then part of the deal might also include a fleet of new COMAC C919 aircraft to found a new national airline - a fantastic prospect.

Disadvantages of the C919

However, despite all of the above, there are a few drawbacks with selecting the C919 that airlines need to take note of.

The aircraft is currently unproven. While it flies, it hasn't performed any revenue services yet, and the jury is still out on whether it's a good aircraft for commercial aviation. There might be some flaws or hiccups that would hinder airlines' growth. For example, Interjet, a Mexican low-cost carrier purchased several Superjet 100s from the Russian firm Sukhoi. A series of faults and groundings later, the airline has returned the entire fleet after spending the better time of its active service inside a hangar. An airline, especially one in an emerging country, would be cautious not to invest heavily in a type (or forbid its entire fleet) that may have some teething issues. The COMAC C919 will certainly be a great plane, but so is the Superjet 100.

This leads us to the next issue. Some emerging centers, such as in Africa, are so far from China that any serious maintenance problems will take months to resolve. COMAC does not have the same parts network, MRO, or AOG services as Boeing and Airbus, and there are currently not international maintenance centers. If it takes months to get a part for an aircraft, an airline will lose millions in revenue.

Lastly, there is the matter of training. Many emerging countries shortcut the pilot recruitment process by hiring experienced pilots who are already type rated for their airline fleet - for example, European A320 pilots. However, in the case of the C919, there are no pilots outside of China, nor any facilities to train them. Emerging countries will need to solve this logic puzzle before they can launch, and at the end of the day might just be wondering if sticking to more traditional aircraft is worth their time.

C919's Time is Yet to Come

The bottom line is the COMAC C919's day in the sun is yet to come. It's a great plane, but it will need many years of revenue service in China before other countries in the world can consider the type. COMAC will need to invest heavily in other nations, ensuring that the support infrastructure is part of any sales plan and that the aircraft is as reliable as a Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. In the meantime, emerging and budget-minded airlines are suggested to look to the second-hand market for reliable aircraft with existing support and available parts.

Nick Cummins
Copywriter - Aviation Journalist
Journalist - Working in news media for over a decade with outlets including 9News and the Discovery Channel, Nick is an airline marketing specialist with a Masters level education. Working closely with AirAsia, Virgin Australia, Turkish Airlines and others, Nick provides unique insight and analysis on a variety of aviation topics. Based in Sydney, Australia.

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