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COMAC C919, Challenging the Boeing and Airbus Duopoly

The passenger aircraft industry is dominated by Boeing and Airbus. That landscape will start to change in 2016 when Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) (中国商用飞机有限责任公司) officially enters its C919 jetliner into service. It will compete head on against the Boeing 737’s and Airbus A320’s and is expected to be both cheaper and more fuel efficient. China Daily cited a Bloomberg report where Airbus forecasted Asia region alone to buy 8,000 passenger aircrafts (100+ seats) over the next 20 years valuing at $1.2 trillion. The market is huge. It also cited an Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) report predicting that airlines in China will buy 2,922 large passenger jetliners before the year of 2028. That is in the neighborhood of $400 billion in jetliners. It is obvious that China would have to invest in this industry.

COMAC C919 Passenger Jetliner

COMAC C919 Passenger Jetliner



COMAC has already produced a number of ARJ21’s and those smaller passenger planes are expected to enter service later this year. Here is COMAC’s recent announcement on their successful May 22, 2010 “large crosswind test flight.”
COMAC ARJ21-700 Test Flight

COMAC ARJ21-700 Test Flight (May 22, 2010)

The C919 has a maximum range of 5,555km according to Aviation Week. COMAC is not making the C919 all on its own. It is relying a lot on American and French aircraft components. This is a great strategy to enter the world market, because the American and French firms have a vested interest in the C919 succeeding. C919 would most likely not be bogged down by patent lawsuits in the U.S. and E.U. markets even if Boeing and Airbus decide to be nasty. COMAC develops technologies where it has the know-how and makes up for the rest with parts from outside firms. This combination enables it to bypass Boeing and Airbus patents.

The following table shows some subsystems of the C919 aircraft made by various outside firms.  (Source: Wikipedia.org)

System/Equipment Supplier Country
Fuselage – nose section (cone) Chengdu Aircraft Industrial (Group) Co. Ltd. China
Fuselage – foreward & aft (barrels) Jiangxi Hongdu Aviation Industry (Group) Corporation Ltd. China
Empennage (Tail section) Shenyang Aircraft Corporation China
Fuselage mid section, wing boxes, spoilers, ailerons, flaps, and slats Xi’an Aircraft Industry (Group) Company Ltd. China
Turbofan Engines CFM International Inc. (LEAP-X1C engine) USA/France
Engine nacelles and thrust reversers Nexcelle USA/France
Engine exhaust systems Nexcelle USA/France
Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) Honeywell (131-9(C9C) APU) USA
Electric power generation & distribution systems Hamilton Sundstrand Electric Systems USA
Starter-generators Honeywell Aerospace USA
Fuel tanks and systems Parker Aerospace Fluid Systems Division USA
Hydraulic Systems & Equipment Parker Aerospace Hydraulic Systems USA
Fly-by-wire flight control actuation system Parker Aerospace USA
Integrated Fire and Protection System Kidde Aerospace & Defense[12] USA
Integrated Air Management Systems Liebherr Aerospace Toulouse SAS FRANCE

China has attempted to make a passenger aircraft starting in the 1970’s – the Y-10. It was cancelled in 1983 due to lack of technology know-how. China has had three decades of rapid development and is capable of making this aircraft now. Here is a fairly well researched article about China’s passenger aircraft programs at Wharton School of Management (宾夕法尼亚大学): “China’s Large Aircraft Program Gains Momentum: When Will It Take off?” It concludes with a quote from Cui Degang, a deputy directory of the Science and Technology Committee of AVIC II (an entity that is now part of COMAC):

“China’s prospective large commercial airplanes should not be inferior to the existing products of Boeing and Airbus in three key criteria: safety, reliability and comfort. Otherwise we can’t survive the competition.”

  1. Wukailong
    May 27th, 2010 at 19:15 | #1

    This is a very interesting and well-researched article. Thanks!

  2. Jack
    May 28th, 2010 at 19:18 | #2

    Go China go!

  3. Shane
    June 1st, 2010 at 18:36 | #3

    From the many vendors on the C919 team listed above it looks like this effort will require a very capable ALL around integration leader or chief engineer to make it happen successfully. I also noticed no leadership in the avionics arena identified, I would think in today’s advanced technology and because of the aircraft’s spiffy avionics in order to ensure safe and efficient operation that a person or joint venture team would have already been identified at the onset of the program. As we all know metal just don’t know how to fly, where to go, how to get there without the avionics(brain). Have I missed something?

  4. June 1st, 2010 at 21:08 | #4

    @Shane

    ARJ21 is a testament that they do have capable leader(s). C919 has already started taking orders, so there has to be tons of progress to show for in order for that to occur. What’s more impressive is that COMAC has to catch up to Boeing and Airbus of 2015 and be cheaper and more fuel efficient at the same time for that market segment.

  5. Shane
    June 3rd, 2010 at 14:01 | #5

    yinyang, I am very impressed by what COMAC has been able to accomplish in such a short time. As for your reply, lots of assumptions remain. Orders by a goverment comapny and the final safe commercial product is different subject (marketing vs. safe product). Have you ever build an aircraft or on a team that built an aircraft? Do you understand the depth of avionics integration involved? have you ever build an aircraft from scratch? I applaud China for the success so far !!!

  6. June 3rd, 2010 at 15:07 | #6

    @Shane

    You are right. Lots of challenges ahead for sure.

    One of my reasons for all these optimism is that China is going through industrial revolution right now, BUT with the benefit of modern day computers. Everything is accelerated.

  7. Shane
    June 4th, 2010 at 20:49 | #7

    yinyang, I think you missed the point. Computer has Nothing (zero) to do with avionics. To have safe and reliable avionics on board there are many steps need to be taken and accomplished before an aircraft can be declared safe, CERTIFIED and then fly. I do applaud China for getting this far in such a short time for the structure but then again there are still many CERTIFICATION steps. Just look at 787, eventhough Boeing have had many years under its belt yet continue to experience surprises. Starting any new aircraft initiative takes more than optimism in fact should be the opposite to ensure success. BTY, I did read today GE, AVIC have sign agreement on avionics venture today. Go China Go.

  8. Pete
    July 16th, 2010 at 13:58 | #8

    Other emerging Boeing/Airbus competitors obviously include Embraer, Bombardier and Irkut. Even India will produce something of this nature in time. If COMAC airplanes are assembled with the same kind of duress on quantity and not quality that is typical of most consumer goods coming out of china then I’ll refuse to fly on them.

  9. July 16th, 2010 at 15:34 | #9

    @Pete,

    Do you use consumer goods like iPhone, PC’s/Mac’s, HDTV’s, etc.?

    On the other end of the scale, countries from all over the world use Chinese rockets to launch their satellites into space.

  10. July 30th, 2011 at 10:45 | #10

    Chinese companies manufactures parts for all of Boeing and Airbus aircarft. Unless one want to stop flying, this cannot be avoided. China buys around 15% Boeing and 22% of Airbus aircraft but got only 5% of the manufacturing contracts, so the percentage is set to increase.

    http://www.boeing.com/news/releases/2005/q2/nr_050602g.html

    http://www.compositesworld.com/news/boeing-avic-open-chinese-composites-facility-expansion

    But size does matter in the aviation industry. China is way behind in numbers of workers in the aviation engine industry (China is in red) http://www.chinasignpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Global-tactical-turbofan-maker-worker-comparison.jpg

  11. July 30th, 2011 at 10:47 | #11

    Some breakdown of parts made by Chinese manufacturers:

    Chengdu
    787 rudder, single source (contracted 2005, first delivery of metal parts 2006)
    737 forward entry doors (since 2005), contract is with Vought
    737 over-wing exit doors (since 2005), contract is with Vought
    Hafei in Harbin
    787 upper and lower panels for wing-to-body fairings (2005 contract), single source
    Shanghai
    737 horizontal stabilizers (contract 1995; nearly 1000 ship sets delivered)
    Xi’an
    737 vertical fin (1995; over 850 delivered)
    747 trailing edge wing ribs (contract 1996, over 500 ship sets delivered), single source
    747 floor beams and detailed parts and subassemblies for Boeing Converted Freighter (contracted in 2004)
    Shenyang
    787, vertical fin leading edge (contracted in 2005), single source
    737 aft fuselage subassemblies (1996/2001, over 300 ship sets delivered), expanded to include “Texas Star” (November 2004)
    TAECO in Xiamen
    Parts, subassemblies and touch labor 747-400 Boeing Converted Freighter (BCF) modification program (2004-2010)
    BHA in Tianjin-interior parts, secondary composite structures for B-737, 747, 767, 777 and 787 (beginning in 2002)
    737 composite panels and parts (flight deck, close out panels, dorsal fin, wing-to-body fairing, cover panels, wing fixed trailing edge, wing fixed leading edge, tail cone, interior panels)
    747 miscellaneous composite panels
    767 and 777 wing fixed tailing edges and dry bay barriers; empennage panels
    777 flight deck interior panels
    787 trailing edge panels for the vertical fin
    Southwest Aluminum in Chongqing, aluminum forgings, four for each 747 plane (since 1988)
    Hong Yuan (HYFC) in Sanyuan, titanium forgings, twelve for each 747 plane (since 1984)
    Quick Electronics in Beijing, PC, print hardware, servers in support of Boeing IT hardware in Asia (1997 contract)
    Baoti Group Ltd. in Shaanxi Province, titanium ingot, plate and sheet (2006 contract)

    Large and important role on the 737
    China has a large, highly visible role on the 737. Vertical fins are built in Xi’an; horizontal stabilizers are built in Shanghai. Parts for section 48 are built in Shenyang. Forward entry door and over wing exit doors are built in Chengdu and the tail cone, wing panels, fairings and a variety of composite parts and panels are contracted for in Tianjin.

    Important role on new 787 Dreamliner airplane
    June 2004, Boeing announced China has an important role on the 787. Supplier contracts were signed in 2005.
    Chengdu, rudder
    Hafei in Harbin, Upper and lower wing-to-body fairing panels
    BHA, trailing edge panels for vertical fin
    Shenyang, vertical fin leading edge
    For the first time, Chinese factories have been selected as exclusive, single-source providers.
    For the first time, Boeing is counting on China to build essential composite structures for passenger airliners.
    For the first time, AVIC II is engaged in a Boeing commercial airplane program
    For the first time, Boeing has introduced its world-wide suppliers to China’s factories, updating them on China’s capabilities and strengths, and encouraging them to engage with Chinese industry
    The value of the 787 rudder, wing-to-body fairing, and vertical fin leading edge work in China could reach several hundred million dollars over the lifetime of the 787 program.
    Significant, expanding role through Boeing supplier network. Boeing encourages the Boeing global supplier network to engage with China. As a result, China has a very significant, expanding role in the Boeing supplier network, at all levels.

    Fisher Aerospace (at BHA)
    Fokker-Elmo builds large electrical wire harness packages for the 737 in Langfang outside of Beijing. They are built for the Boeing Electrical System Responsibility Center for the 737 airplane. Five packages of ten harnesses at a rate of about 1000 harnesses per month, beginning in October 2005. Additional electrical equipment in 2006 including junction boxes.
    General Electric procurement from Harbin, Shanghai, Xi’an, Sichuan, Suzhou, Guizhou, Shenyang
    Goodrich CF34 fan cowl (at BHA, 2003)
    Hamilton Sundstrand Qinling Aerospace (Xiamen) Ltd. is a joint venture between Hamilton Sundstrand USA (65 percent) and Shaanxi AeroElectric Company Ltd. (35 percent) in Xiamen. It provides overhaul repair services for Hamilton Sundstrand electric power systems to airlines in China
    Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI), 737 parts for vertical fin, horizontal stabilizer, at SAIC, XAC and BHA (2006)
    Parker Hannifan, machining with Jincheng Corp., Shanghai Qi Yi Automotive, Sichuan Golden Dragon Machine
    Pratt & Whitney, engine components, Xi’an and Chengdu
    Primus International in Suzhou, factory ground-breaking 2004, airplane components
    Rolls Royce, procurement from several locations including Xi’an, Shenyang
    Snecma, CFM56 engine blades, joint venture in Guiyang
    Smith Aerospace, Suzhou; engine parts, flight controls
    Spirit Aerospace, 737 section 48 from Shenyang
    Vought, 737 overwing exits and forward entry doors, from Chengdu
    747-400 Boeing Converted Freighter (BCF) – China is the first location for conversion of 747 airplanes to the new 747-400 BCF. Airplane conversion, testing and certification are all done in China, and deliveries are from China.

  12. Bruce
    October 24th, 2011 at 17:28 | #12

    This is just one more example of poor management at Boeing. They save a few bucks by contracting with Chinese factories, but in the end, they help to create a competitor in their most important market segment. I’m telling you, Boeing management always had its problems, but when the headquarters moved to Chicago, it was the beginning of the end.

  13. January 28th, 2012 at 08:23 | #13

    XAIC delivers 2,000th vertical tail to Boeing
    http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2012-01/14/content_14446330.htm

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