Today, the first narrowbody jet designed and manufactured by Chinese state-owned firm COMAC, the C919, completed its maiden flight with a 90-minute tour in the skies above Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. Although the flight occurred two years later than expected, and initial deliveries have been pushed forward into 2020, the 158-seat aircraft with a price tag of around US $50 million is expected to one day go head-to-head with the 737 and A320 duopoly that currently dominates the market.
Although today’s flight was successful, test pilots did not demand much from the aircraft. It flew at just 3,000m, and at speeds of about 300km/hour– about half the cruising speed and altitude of a commercial narrowbody jet flight. Designers maintain however, the C919 is capable of flying much longer and faster, with a range of 2,200-3,000 nm (compared to the 737 MAX’s 3,515-3,825 and A319NEO’s 3,3750).
While the C919 is described as China’s first “homegrown” jet, and is certainly a worthy milestone for the country, like other modern jets, it is a very global product. Dozens of Western suppliers, including General Electric and Honeywell, contributed expertise and parts ranging from avionics to engines. Eventually that will change, but analysts widely agree that it will take decades for Chinese companies to develop the know-how to produce all of their own components.
To date, most of the aircraft’s 570 orders are from Chinese airlines, or lessors who plan to keep the planes in China. Responsibility will thus be in the hands of these airlines to test the aircraft’s schedule reliability and operational performance. Though the C919 comes with a significantly lower price tag, Boeing and Airbus have had decades to optimize everything from production, to maintenance procedures, while continually reducing operational cost.
For now, the C919 takes to the skies: