Chinese manufacturer COMAC has already tested the C919 and started working on the CR929. The next logical step is the C939. What kind of airplane would that be?

Climbing the ladder

COMAC has no small ambition: to turn Airbus and Boeing duopoly into a triumvirate, establishing itself as an alternative for its European and American counterparts. A crucial element of that is having a lineup of airplanes that could compete with the current aerospace behemoths in every niche of the commercial aircraft market. 

The first step is small regional airliners. While not exactly Boeing or Airbus territory, the market is filled by several smaller manufacturers, and COMAC ARJ21 is set to compete with them. It is already in production, albeit in a limited capacity.

A step above that, in both size and complexity, would be mainline narrow-body jets like the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320. It is the largest niche and arguably the most heavily contested one. The C919, COMAC’s entry into it, is currently undergoing certification. 

The deliveries of the C919 are set to commence in 2021. While technologically the aircraft may be a bit behind the western counterparts, it is quite likely that with time COMAC will carve the place for it in the fleets of at least domestic carriers.

The next logical step is making wide-body two-aisle airliners. Having no experience in the field, COMAC has partnered with Russian United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), aiming to acquire competences and technologies as well as split the cost of development. Their mutual child – the CRAIC CR929 – has faced problems and delays, but the development goes on and COMAC says that we will see the airliner in the skies by 2023.

The CR929 has a range of 12,000 kilometers (6,480 nmi) and will seat between 258 and 291 passengers in three or two class seating: suitable for ocean-crossing journeys, at least the shorter ones. 

While certainly large and long-range, the CR929 will not be amongst the biggest modern airliners. In both size and range it is comparable to the Airbus A330 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the smallest kind of wide-body jets optimized for up to 300 seats. 

A step above that? The Airbus A350 and the Boeing 777, two of the largest twin-engine airplanes that ever flew. They are able transport up to or even over 400 passengers to distances exceeding 15,000 kilometers (8,100 nmi). 

Following breadcrumbs

There is no doubt plans to enter this niche were baked into COMAC from the beginning. Although we know next to nothing about the C939, one thing can be certain – it will be squarely aimed at competing with Airbus and Boeing flagships. 

This fact is confirmed by at least a couple of snippets of semi-official information that is available. In 2015, just after the start of the CR929 program and in the context of then-ongoing development of the C919, Chinese media briefly reported about the plans for the next step – the C939. According to it, the plane was in the phase of preliminary studies and was set to be larger than the CR929.

In 2017, following the first flight of the C919, Chinese newspaper Huaxi City Daily interviewed Chen Yingchun, COMAC Chief Designer of Long-Range Widebody Aircraft. In passing, Yingchun mentioned that the company was already working not only on the CR929, but on the C939 and the C949 as well. In the same year, several other newspapers featured stories mentioning that at least a dozen airliner projects were being developed at COMAC’s “Dream Studio” ‒ a cutting-edge research department, composed of mostly young scientists. The C939 and the C949 were amongst those projects, but no technical details were revealed again. 

Elsewhere on the internet, a capacity for 390 passengers is often mentioned. While completely possible and even likely (if we take into account its competitors), this number is probably just an extrapolation of the aircraft name: two last digits of CR929, according to some, are a reference to passenger capacity of 290. 

Any further information strays into the realm of speculation even more. Yet there is nothing wrong in some speculation, especially if it is based on well-known truths that are governing the market of wide-body jets.

First off, it is quite certain the C939 will try to match the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 777 in its range, fuel efficiency and other parameters. There are three engine possibilities for the CR929: the Western one (either Rolls-Royce or General Electric), the one made jointly with Russia, or the domestic one. If either of the last two succeeds and China gets a domestically- or semi-domestically produced engine able to rival Rolls-Royce Trent or General Electric GEnx, it will likely aim to develop an even more powerful version for the C939.

Also, judging from the available information, at least so far the collaboration with UAC is not considered for this aircraft. There are some indications that could prove otherwise, though. In 2019, a joint project between Moscow aviation institute and Shanghai Jiao Tong University was announced. For it,  Russian and Chinese students collaborated to present some concepts related to the development of – according to a press release of the organizers – the “CR939 wide-body long-range aircraft”. 

Possibly, there are some parts of the new airliner that are being developed jointly with Russia, but it is also completely possible that China hopes to acquire necessary technological prowess and know-how by the time the CR929 enters production. Seeing how many near-critical problems with its development were caused by the joint nature of the program, the aim to become as independent as possible is understandable. On top of that, it is possible that Russia is less than interested in the project as well – its Ilyushin Il-96-400, a deep modernization of Soviet-era wide-body airliner, is currently in development and will occupy the niche exactly a step above the CR929.

Getting there on time

Of course, a lot depends on the timeline of the development. COMAC will likely ramp up the work on the C939 as soon as the pre-production of the CR929 enters the final phase, meaning that – if the company keeps up with the current timeline – we are likely to see the new super-long-range airplane no earlier than by the mid-2020s. 

It means that the aircraft will miss the slowdown of long-range aviation and will likely arrive after the market resets and adapts itself to post-COVID-19 conditions. It is also likely that it will find the Boeing 777X in it, as well as the A350neo – the unannounced, but expected answer by Airbus. 

COMAC will have to try to outdo both of them, which means developing or acquiring the next generation of engines, composite technology (which, as the C919 shows, China so far struggled with) and, in general, pushing the envelope rather than playing catch up.

Those tasks take time. Both the C919 and the CR929 have faced dramatic delays and no development program is shielded from some unexpected problems. Therefore, any coming information, especially on the development timeline, should be taken with a grain of salt. 

Nevertheless, it is highly likely COMAC will use some upcoming milestone of either the CR929 or the C919 to officially announce the C939 and we will be able to confirm at least part of what we know.