The first commercial aircraft designed and built in China took off with passengers on board after more than ten years of work, tests and 72.1 billion dollars invested by the Beijing government. Officially it aims to undermine the global duopoly of Airbus and Boeing. Unofficially, it aims to deprive the two European and US giants of the richest market in the next thirty years: Asia. To do so, however, it must rely on Western technology and this, in the coming years, could trigger an industrial clash between the blocks.
The market and the (economic) price
Sunday 28 May the C919 — single-aisle aircraft with 164 seats for short and medium hauls — took off from Shanghai at 10.33 in the morning (4.33 in Italy, ed) with destination Beijing. The flight of China Eastern Airlines MU9191 it carried about 130 people and was celebrated by the local media. was built by Commercial Aviation Corporation of China (Comac), it is inspired on the one hand by the Airbus A320neo and on the other by the direct competitor Boeing 737 Max 8, but it costs less.
List price see $120 million for the A320neo, $121.6 million for the Boeing 737 Max and $99 million for the C919. All values net of the discounts always provided for customers.
Authorizations: for now the C919 can only fly to China
Comac estimates that it will build 150 units a year and some time ago it announced that it had received orders and reservations for around 1,200 aircraft. Western analysts, however, have long expressed doubts and skepticism about Beijing's programme. The C919 can currently only fly to China. This means that, legally, it cannot even fly over other airspace. Not only that: the regulatory authorities in Europe (EASA) and the United States (FAA) do not give the aircraft the go-ahead in the areas of competence. The Chinese sent the certification request to the Old Continent almost seven years ago - July 2016 - and EASA does not seem to be in a hurry to give the result.
The consumption of the Chinese aircraft is higher than that of Boeing and Airbus
Not only. In a sector — that of air transport — which pays ever more attention to the environmental impact, the C919 shows not very green characteristics. An example? Reading the information, if an A320neo burns 1.89 liters to fly a seat for one hundred kilometers and the Boeing 737 Max 8 requires 1.94 litres, the Chinese aircraft consumes at least 2.43 litres, i.e. 28% more than its European and American. A fact that could make the no to certification by EASA and FAA even easier.
The C919 with its 38.9 meters longer than the A320neo (37.5 meters) and shorter than the Boeing 737 Max 8 (39.8), with its 5,600 km range covers a distance shorter than the products of Europe and of the USA (6,500 kilometres) and carries even fewer passengers in the basic configuration: 158 against the more than 180 of Airbus and Boeing.
Then there is the purely industrial question. The C919 takes off and actually works thanks to Western technology. The Cfm Leap-1 engines are made by a French-American consortium (Cfm International). The avionics equipped with US instrumentation (Honeywell, Parker Aerospace), the pilots use American equipment in the cabin (Eaton), they rely on Michelin tires, the German anti-icing system of the wings (Liebherr). According to the Center for strategic & international studies, the aircraft relies on 48 American, 26 European, 6 Asia-Pacific and 14 Chinese suppliers. All critical components that could lead Western governments to impose export restrictions.
The real problem for Airbus and Boeing is the market. If the C919 will hardly fly over the western skies in the next few years, in the medium-long term it will be increasingly requested by Chinese airlines, some Asian and African countries economically dependent on Beijing. In short, the new aircraft is not, for now, a threat to the duopoly, but the Chinese market is destined to be the main one in the world. The reports of Airbus and Boeing confirm it: for the European manufacturer between now and 2041 only China will require 1,341 single-aisle aircraft, to which must be added 1,649 from Asia. According to Boeing, Chinese airlines will need 6,370 aircraft in the same period of time, in this case by adding single-aisle, double-aisle and cargo jets.