China Eastern‘s COMAC C919 update: low utilization and second delivery

China Eastern Airlines' first months with the COMAC C919 has been marked with low utilization

When China Eastern Airlines introduced the COMAC C919 into commercial service on May 28, 2023, it marked a monumental development in China’s aerospace industry. Now, the country had a competitor to the widely popular Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX aircraft families. 

Made by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), the C919 has come a long way since it was first announced in 2008. Following numerous delays, it finally flew for the first time in May 2017, continuing its certification program with the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).  COMAC finally obtained the Type Certificate (TC) for the aircraft in September 2022. 

The first delivery to China followed in December 2022, when, during a widely-seen ceremony, China Eastern Airlines became the first commercial airline to take the type into its fleet. However, passengers wanting to board the C919 had to wait, as the carrier first wanted to test the Chinese-made jet before fare-paying travelers would be able to fly it. 

Low aircraft utilization 

Initially, China Eastern Airlines filed a schedule in which the COMAC C919 would be operating flight MU9192 between Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA) and Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) on February 28, 2023. 

However, that situation soon changed. After a months-long pause, the C919 was back in the air again for more test flights in May 2023, having previously flown in March 2023. Several days after, the narrow-body jet began commercial service, flying passengers between SHA and PEK on May 28, 2023. 

After completing the return journey to SHA on the same day, the aircraft has spent its time flying between one of Shanghai, China’s airports and Chengdu Tianfu International Airport (TFU). The only exception was July 13, 2023, when it flew from SHA to Huai’an Lianshui Airport (HIA), returning to its origin airport the following day. 

Looking through the aircraft’s flight history from data, one fact that stands out is that China Eastern Airlines does not utilize the C919 fully, with a maximum of just two flights per day. In comparison, aircraft flying on the same route, namely between SHA and TFU, fly much more often. 

Taking a narrow-body aircraft as an example, China Eastern Airlines offers five daily flights between SHA and TFU, including the flight operated by the COMAC C919. On July 12, 2023, a China Eastern Airbus A320neo, registered as B-322Q, began the day flying on the route in question, before completing a return journey to SHA, where it proceeded to fly a return itinerary between SHA and Weihai Dashuibo Airport (WEH). 

On certain days, though – for instance, on July 8 and July 9, 2023 – the A320neo only flew three times. 

Even a wide-body jet is utilized more fully. On July 3, 2023, an Airbus A350-900, registered as B-323H, started with a flight between SHA and Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU), another airport serving the same city, before returning to its destination, and once again taking off for CTU. The next day, it flew four sectors: CTU to SHA, SHA to CTU, and CTU to Beijing Daxing International Airport (PEX). 

Another twin-aisle jet, an Airbus A330, registered as B-5921 and presumably based at TFU, typically flies four times a day out of the airport, including a journey to SHA. On July 11, 2023, the aircraft flew a return itinerary to Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN), after which it completed another two-way jump to SHA. 

Looking at the flight history of the China Eastern Airlines’ Boeing 737 MAXses – another aircraft against which the C919 is trying to compete – they typically fly four times a day. Though on some days the three active 737 MAX aircraft complete fewer flights, the rule of thumb is that they fly three to four times daily. 

Delivery of the second COMAC C919

Nevertheless, there has been much excitement within the country over the COMAC C919 finally soaring to the skies with paying customers. 

Even a few Western observers made it onto China Eastern Airlines’ first flights with the type, with some documenting their experiences. Noel Phillips, famous for his flight reviews, including his Loo Review, remarked during his video that while the loo is “very small, very cramped”, it is still “a very nice plane to ride on”. 

A second C919 aircraft joined the airline’s fleet on July 16, 2023. Previously registered as B-001K, COMAC has been conducting test flights with the aircraft, the most recent being on July 13, 2023. On the two-hour-plus test flight, the aircraft took off from and landed at Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG), something it has done consistently for a few days over the past few months. 

Now, the aircraft is registered as B-C919C. 

B-C919C first flew on May 8, 2023, according to data, with the site estimating that delivery should occur in 2023. In total, China Eastern Airlines has five C919s on order, with the airline expecting that it would receive the remaining four by the end of 2023, according to the carrier’s 2022 financial report. 

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