The long-planned Chinese rival to Boeing and Airbus, the C919, has finally had its maiden flight in Shanghai. What’s next? A short wait until it becomes clear whether the introduction of China’s first indigenous aircraft will make a difference in the global manufacturing battle.

Now, the C919 is a national project initiative launched by the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) to transform the country into a creator of profitable technology in aviation, clean energy, and other priority fields.

But let’s take another little step back in history. The work on the twin-engine single-aisle COMAC C919 began back in 2006. This was the first attempt of the Chinese aircraft designers to gain a foothold in the niche of single-aisle jets, which continues to be dominated by Boeing and Airbus – the two giants of the global aviation industry – to date. The other agenda of the project initiators back then was to compete with the development of the Russian Irkut MC-21.

In the meantime, Doug Alder from Boeing Media Relations is confident that  Boeing’s current and future airplane lineup is best suited to meet the needs of customers across the globe, including in China. Understandably, while the C919 will not be available on the market for several years, both major manufacturers are free to enjoy COMAC’S 919 main market niche. 

Undoubtedly, with this in mind, there are certain features of C919 to watch out for.

The all-new jet can seat up to 168 passengers and has already received orders from more than 20 customers, mostly from Chinese carriers. While COMAC is yet to reveal the price tag of its jet, a report by China National Radio in June predicted that a C919 was likely to be priced at $50 million, i.e. up to 30% less than B737, A320, MC-21 or SSJ-100.

Therefore, if the C919 is cheaper than a B737 MAX or A320neo, will the cost average out in terms of lifetime fuel burn and maintenance? Probably not.

The Boeing’s 737 MAX is projected to be more fuel efficient than other airplanes in its category. But even though it is only an estimation, there is still a huge stigma regarding Chinese production being unsafe and thus the plain is destined to score low in terms of international esteem.

Yet the stigma is not 100% accurate. Just recall the case of iPhones – they are also assembled in China and sourced with components from different parts of the world. When it comes to C919 components, try to guess, how much Chinese is the first China’s jet?

Although the C919 falls under the well-known label “Made in China” (the same is indicated on any iPhone’s cover), foreign firms play key roles by supplying systems, as well as the engines, which are manufactured by the CFM. Part of the avionics, including the communications system as well as the navigation and control systems, are supplied by Rockwell Collins. Everything – from the IT systems and cockpit displays to black boxes are delivered by GE Aviation and its partner AVIC Systems. The power supply system of the C919 is also produced by an ‘outsider’, i.e. Hamilton Sundstrand. Honeywell is to provide wheels and brakes, brake control system (BCS) and tires. To sum up, the Radar cover, wings and tail – that’s how much Chinese is the new China’s jet.

“The COMAC C919 is a very international aircraft, consistent with the aircraft of Boeing and Airbus. With that in mind, it should offer better opportunities in terms of maintenance or spare parts supply for the C919 operators world-wide,” agrees Rick Kennedy, the Media Relations manager from GE.

It should be noted that when it comes to aircraft production, the Chinese working on the C919 project are basically collaborating through joint ventures with other manufacturers. Moreover, in other high-tech industries, they have been also relying on the trusted experience of the actual Western OEMs: Volkswagen for automobiles, Cisco for telecommunications and Bombardier for high-speed rail. However, some experts argue that COMAC will not serve as the same model when it comes to competing with Boeing or Airbus.

“Having in mind that COMAC was established in 2008, China wants to do what took almost a century for Boeing and Airbus in just eight years. You cannot develop the talent, expertise and knowledge and bring together hundreds of suppliers to make a commercial aircraft without the potential for major delays or even complete failure in such a short period of time,” explained Chao, the managing director of All In Consulting, based in Los Angeles.

On the other hand, since China’s needs for planes are limitless, why not try to build it? It is certainly a long and arduous journey, but if China never tries it, it will be forever forced to acquire its planes from foreigners.

“Chinese airlines have successfully operated Western jetliners for more than three decades, and Chinese companies have played the role of successful suppliers of jet engine components to GE Aviation and CFM International for several years.Therefore, China has made significant strides in establishing a modern aerospace capability. Taking that into account, no wonder that GE believes that China will achieve its objectives in developing viable commercial air transport vehicles. But it takes time and continual investment. Fortunately, China is clearly committed to achieving its goal,” concluded Rick Kennedy, a Media Relations manager from GE.

All in all, it’s going to be a long haul for COMAC. Let’s also remember that before export sales are possible, the C919 must be examined, thoroughly tested and certificated by the North American and European regulators.