While senior figures at the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) have said the order book for the C919 has said that the order book for the C919 has crossed the 1,000-mark, financial filings posted by China’s largest airlines reveal that deliveries will lag behind the pace of orders for the domestically made aircraft.
China Eastern Airlines received its second C919 in July 2023, months after COMAC delivered the first-ever aircraft of the type to the carrier in December 2022.
However, looking at H1 2023 financial presentations for China’s ‘Big Three’ airlines, only one, China Eastern Airlines, plans to take delivery of the C919 in 2023, 2024, and 2025.
Meanwhile, speaking to China’s CGTN in January 2023, Zhang Yujin, the vice president of COMAC, said the Chinese manufacturer plans to “build 150 C919 every year for the next five years”, and has already attracted more than 1,200 orders for the type.
Three C919 deliveries remain in 2023
Air China, China Eastern Airlines, and China Southern Airlines, which make up China’s ‘Big Three’ airlines, are the only three carriers with C919s assigned to them, according to ch-aviation.com data.
Data from the site also shows that Air China has five, China Eastern Airlines has three (excluding two that have already been delivered), and China Southern Airlines has five C919s associated with them.
With 474 aircraft left unassigned to any airline, according to ch-aviation.com data, this could highlight the true order book for the Chinese-made narrow-body jet.
Additionally, the H1 results of all three airlines revealed that only China Eastern Airlines is planning to take in C919s over the next few years.
According to the carrier’s results, which were published on August 30, 2023, as of June 30, 2023, it had a single C919 in its fleet, having taken delivery of the second unit in July 2023. However, looking to the future fleet plan, for the remainder of 2023 China Eastern Airlines plans to take delivery of 22 aircraft while retiring nine.
Out of the 22, four are COMAC C919s, nine COMAC ARJ21s, three Airbus A350-900s, and four A320 family aircraft, with two additional 737 MAXs booked in the airline’s fleet plan for the rest of the year.
However, between 2024 and 2025, it only plans to take delivery of nine COMAC ARJ21s, with no further C919 deliveries planned so far. Meanwhile, China Eastern Airlines has only ordered five aircraft of the type, with 15 options still on the table.
Air China, which has also ordered five plus 15 options, per ch-aviation.com, also provided its fleet plan for the rest of 2023, 2024, and 2025. Throughout that time the airline group plans to take delivery of a total of 20 COMAC ARJ21s but has no COMAC C919s arriving during the same period.
Lastly, China Southern Airlines said in its H1 2023 report that its fleet plans have not “changed materially from the information disclosed in the 2022 annual report of the Company”. In the 2022 annual report, the carrier disclosed plans to have 40 ARJ21s by 2025. Again, no COMAC C919s would be present in its fleet at least until 2025.
It also has five aircraft of the type on order, ch-aviation.com data showed.
Furthermore, by the end of 2023, the airline plans to dispose of two remaining Airbus A380s. China Southern Airlines’ last commercial flight with the A380 took place in November 2022, when the aircraft, registered as B-6319, returned to China from the United States (US).
Aircraft lessors with the majority of C919 orders
However, all of that could still change, given that aircraft lessors hold many of the orders for the type.
14 different lessors split a total of 474 orders for the Chinese-made aircraft, with CCB Financial Leasing having the largest order book at 76. CCB Financial Leasing is a subsidiary of China Construction Bank. The only non-European lessor was CDB Aviation with 60 COMAC C919 orders, registered in Ireland. Even then, it is a subsidiary of China Development Bank, a government-owned entity that provides financing for larger projects within the country.
With lessors in charge of most of the order book and, by extension, the delivery slots, the airlines could take delivery of the C919s with unspecified operators.
But there are more airlines that have ordered the C919, including the HNA Aviation Group, which owns several China-based carriers, including Beijing Capital Airlines, Fuzhou Airlines, Hainan Airlines, Lucky Air, and others. The group ordered a total of 100 COMAC aircraft, split between 60 C919 and 40 ARJ21s in April 2023.
According to Song Hongmou, the director and secretary of the Party Committee at Liaoning Fangda Group, the parent company of HNA Aviation Group, the purchase will help the airline group to optimize its fleet structure.
At the time, Hongmou said the group’s “air transportation capacity and market competitiveness will be greatly improved,” adding that, together with COMAC, the two companies will help “the development of domestic large aircraft industry”.
Notably, the announcement did not specify delivery dates or whether these aircraft would be leased, nor did it specify which of HNA Aviation Group’s airlines would operate them.
Except for confirming it was a firm aircraft order, the announcement only added that the planemaker and the group will “also cooperate in the fields of aircraft import and export, aviation material maintenance, logistics warehousing, new technology application, aviation material support, maintenance support, aircraft configuration optimization, etc.”.
Looking at the fleet date for the largest three airlines, financial results paint a similar picture, namely that their fleets include mixed ownership models.
Out of the 902 aircraft in the Air China group as of June 30, 2023, 357 are owned, 239 are on finance leases, and 306 are on operating leases. Similarly, China Southern Airlines, which had 897 aircraft as of June 30, 2023, owned 321 and booked 238 and 338 under finance and operating leases, respectively.
Finally, China Eastern Airlines owns 282 of its aircraft, has 269 under finance leases, and 231 under operating leases. The carrier’s sole COMAC C919 is operated under a finance lease, according to its H1 2023 results.
Knowing that all three operate aircraft with mixed ownership types, even if the COMAC C919s are unassigned, airlines within China must “be wholly state-owned or state-controlled (including relatively controlled),” according to The Law Review. It also pointed out that China’s Big Three airlines must be state-owned, or state controlled. As such, the government could place the C919s up for grabs with the trio or any other smaller carriers within the country.
Next C919 delivery on the horizon?
China Eastern Airlines is still the only airline in the world to operate the COMAC C919.
Both airline’s current C919s operate between Chengdu Tianfu International Airport (TFU) and Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA), having flown no more than two flights per day since both were introduced into commercial service.
However, when China Eastern Airlines introduced its first C919 into service in May 2023, the airline’s Vice President Feng Dehua said that the type would be introduced on more routes gradually.
Other COMAC C919 airframes that have been active recently are all COMAC test beds. These include B-100F (last flight on September 2, 2023), B-001C (September 4, 2023), and B-001A (September 1, 2023), which briefly appeared on the radar. The remaining test beds (B-001G, B-001E, and B-001D) belonging to COMAC have not flown since July 2023, according to an analysis of flightradar24.com data.
At the time of publication, ch-aviation.com did not show any active or recently active C919 aircraft.