By Gregory Polek
China’s Comac delivered the first production C919 narrowbody to launch customer China Eastern Airlines on Friday, marking the culmination of a nearly 15-year development process that saw the first prototype make its initial flight in May 2017. The 164-seat jet—five of which China Eastern ordered in 2010 at the Zhuhai Airshow as part of a batch of commitments for 55 aircraft from six airlines—will start revenue service early next year, according to Chinese state media, adding that the airline said it expected to take delivery of all five airplanes over the next two years.
Comac received certification for the CFM Leap-powered airliner in late September. Designed to carry a maximum of 168 passengers in a standard, single-class configuration, the C919 competes in China against the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families, both of which have accrued significant backlogs in the PRC. However, political tensions have raised questions about the long-term feasibility of Western participation in the supply of components for the aircraft.
Several international concerns have entered into joint ventures in China to develop elements of the C919 program, including GE and Safran (engines), Collins Aerospace (communications and navigation systems), Honeywell (flight control systems), and Liebherr Aerospace (landing gear and air management systems). In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted a number of Chinese officials on charges of stealing engine technology from several U.S.-based and European OEMs. Since then, geopolitical tensions with the West led to an effort by Comac to increase the number of Chinese components in the aircraft. Development of an engine known as the CJ-1000A continues, although at a much slower pace than originally projected by Chinese authorities.
The roughly 800 orders and commitments for the C919 have come almost exclusively from Chinese airlines and lessors. In 2010, more than a decade before it completed its merger with AerCap last year, GE Capital Aviation Services announced orders for 10 of the aircraft, making it the first Western actor to make good on its interest in the C919. In 2015 Thailand’s City Airways signed a preliminary agreement with ICBC Leasing to take 10 of the narrowbodies, but the airline went out of business the following year.