On November 2, 2020, China flew its COMAC C919 at an airshow for the first time. It seemed like it was capable of impressing the audience, but can it do the most important task: break the Airbus-Boeing duopoly?
This no-small mission was baked into the fabric of the C919 from the beginning. “C919 comes after Airbus and Boeing so you will have ABC in the aviation industry,” chief designer of the jet Wu Guanghui said back in 2009. The development of the aircraft had just started, the hopes were high, and the maiden flight was set to happen in the not-so-far future of 2014.
Of course, it did not happen so. The development was beset by all kinds of problems, including accusations of commercial espionage from the Western partners, and the first C919 prototype managed to take off only in May of 2017. Then, it had to wait for five months before the second flight, and then wait some more, as it was stopped by technical problems again.
A lot has happened between 2009 and 2017, and it might explain some of the C919’s problems. The launch of the Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737 MAX for one, which set a higher bar in efficiency. As a result, COMAC, dead set on the previous generation of Western narrow-body airliners, and forced to delay their “answer”, was left with an outdated set of goals.
This, coupled with ever-mounting technical challenges, resulted in a sub-par airplane by contemporary standards. Nowhere it is as apparent as in comparison with the capabilities of its competitors. Sadly, reliable data on the C919 is hard to find – even the amount of its variants fluctuates between six and two depending on the source and the specifications of anything beyond the base model are simply non-existent.
Ranges, capacities and discrepancies
The base model, as can be seen from the chart below, stands in proud solitude in comparison with not only the latest Western narrow-body jets (neo and MAX), but even the previous generation (ceo and NextGeneration (NG).
It carries a similar amount of passengers, but as for range, it has more in common with regional jets like the Embraer E195 than any of the competitors that were outlined by Wu. A slight hope can be put into the long-range (LR) model that might have specifications similar to the Boeing 737 NG variants from the mid-90s, but its passenger capacity is pure speculation – according to COMAC, it will carry “over 100 passengers”. Quite likely, the impressive jump in range will be achieved by modifying (shortening) the airframe accordingly.
Of course, the range is not the only parameter an aircraft can compete by. There is a good argument in saying that the C919 is aiming at the niche currently unfilled by Western jets, and is optimized for ranges of around 4,000 kilometers. There are barely any popular domestic routes in China exceeding that range. If COMAC is aiming to break the Airbus-Boeing duopoly at least in the domestic market, it has to offer something more efficient for Chinese carriers.
Estimating the (fuel) economy
The C919’s efficiency is another big question. COMAC’s promotional material states that the aircraft will have fuel consumption and direct operating costs lower than those of competing airplanes; its LEAP-1C engines, developed by Safran, are projected to burn 10-15% less fuel than anything mounted on the 737 NG and the A320ceo. Yet when the A320neo and the 737 MAX came with their own LEAP-1s – A and B respectively – fuel burn reduction of 15-16% was their main selling point, indicating that whatever lead the C919 may have had, was already wasted.
Efficient engines are not the only way to make efficient aircraft though. When the UAC MC-21 was revealed, Aeroflot said that they expected an aircraft to burn 2.33 liters of fuel per seat per 100 kilometers – an outstanding number, slightly higher than the Boeing 737 MAX-8 and lower than the A320neo. The efficiency was due to the high use of composite materials and innovative manufacturing techniques, achieved without Safran’s ultra-efficient engines. The aircraft does not even have winglets.
The C919’s fuel burn statistics are not yet revealed, despite the aircraft being in development for over a decade. It could be speculated that if there was something to boast about, COMAC would have boasted. The fact that the manufacturer switched from carbon fiber to aluminum alloys for wing construction in 2017 can also be noted, as it is doubtful that wonders can be accomplished without new wondrous materials.
The maximum fuel capacity for the aircraft is available and by using it we can estimate some rough fuel burn numbers. If we assume that an aircraft uses its full fuel tanks to fly the maximum range (which it does not, as different engine regimes on taxiing, take-off and landing will heavily impact the number, and there is reserve fuel as well), we can calculate how much of that fuel is used for 100 kilometers and what part of it is used per seat.
Thus, assuming an average density of 0.8 liters per kilogram and using the C919’s fuel capacity of 19560 kg provided by COMAC, we have a figure of 2.43 liters per seat per 100 kilometers. Not bad, right?
Yet, using the same method, we will have 2.09 for the MC-21, 1.89 for the A320neo and 1.94 for the Boeing 737 MAX-8. Sure, these numbers do not match with an actual fuel burn of these aircraft – it is just a very rough estimate. But it shows that even from available data, the C919’s fuel economy does not look good.
So what now?
Does this mean that the COMAC C919 is subpar, and that no airline will buy it? Not really. Major Chinese carriers already set their orders – in tens, not hundreds though. Those orders are either formally or informally government-mandated and we are likely to see the repetition of the story of COMAC’s ARJ21 as a result. Several of those are produced every year and distributed amongst airlines to perform heavily-publicized flights.
This faith likely awaits the C919 as soon as COMAC begins to mass-produce the aircraft. For the last several years now, Western media is awash with experts claiming that neither Boeing, nor Airbus see COMAC as a competitor: its attempts to breach Western markets will likely result in a disaster similar to the SSJ-100, and back at home, airlines are still ordering Boeing and Airbus jets like nothing happened. Production goals of 150 aircraft per year seem far-fetched, while the more realistic scenario of the ARJ21’s production rate of 30 units per year are of no concern for Western giants.
All of this is true, but there are several caveats. First, the C919 is the first large airliner ever produced in China and by breaching that ice – partners, espionage and all – COMAC got competences it never had. Any subsequent project is likely to go smoother.
Second, many of the C919’s shortcomings are related to outdated technologies. One popular argument to explain them is that Western partners were afraid to share their newest technologies fearing China’s lack of respect for intellectual property. The same fear is echoed in Russia’s reluctance to participate in the CR929 program.
But if the story of the Boeing 737 can teach us anything, it is that a successful mid-range airframe can be abused almost indefinitely. The 737 was born in the 60s, and as the MAX grounding is slowly being wrapped up, there is no indication that it will not fly for decades to come. Having designed the basis, COMAC can upgrade the C919 with things that are lacking now but may appear later – such as domestically produced composite materials – to reach efficiencies comparable to Western counterparts. It may take decades, but if China remains as persistent as it was through the entirety of the C919 development hell, the break of the Airbus-Boeing duopoly might come out of it sooner or later.