Two hours after taking off from Shanghai, the first Chinese medium-haul C919 landed safely in Beijing, received by large jets of water on the tarmac of Beijing Capital Airport on May 28. On the images of state television, we see the passengers smile proudly when they discover the device, smartphone in hand. Sixteen years after the launch of the project by the Chinese aircraft manufacturer Comac, Beijing finally hopes to compete with the duopoly of the European Airbus and the American Boeing thanks to the device which can carry around 170 passengers.
Despite the celebrations, this inauguration is only a half-victory because it comes too late. Eight years behind schedule, this aircraft will struggle to compete with the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX, which are already widely used around the world. Initially planned for 2014, the C919 was finally able to fly three years later, but the test phases revealed design problems forcing Comac to rework certain parts.
Under these conditions, the two Western aircraft manufacturers are not worried: global demand is growing and after the interruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, orders are piling up for their aircraft. Including in China, where Airbus signed contracts for 292 aircraft in 2022, mainly from the A320 family. During Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beijing, 160 of these orders were validated and the European aircraft manufacturer announced the creation of a second A320neo assembly line by 2025. The first line opened in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing in 2009 allowed it to overtake Boeing in the country. Today, it controls 54% of the Chinese market, compared to 42% for its American rival, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider.
Only one C919 flies regularly
A domination that should continue at least in the short term, because the tense relations between Beijing and Washington are hurting the sales of the American aircraft manufacturer. After the two 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019, China is the country that has suspended these devices the longest: they only resumed flights in January 2023, two years after most other countries.
As for the competition of the C919, it will not take place before the end of the decade: because if this plane has already registered more than 1,200 orders from airlines and Chinese aircraft rental companies who have little choice, the company does not have the capabilities to flood the market overnight. For now, only one C919 flies regularly. Comac plans to reach a capacity of 150 aircraft per year in 2028. Four times less than the current Airbus A320 production capacity.