As homegrown jet prepares for first flight, domestic aviation industry is set to soar
The much-anticipated C919, a large, homegrown passenger jet, is set to provide a major impetus to domestic airplane manufacturing, with its first test flight expected this year.
Since the first C919 rolled off the assembly line, its manufacturer, the Shanghai-based state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp of China Ltd, has been conducting tests in preparation for its first flight.
In December, the first C919 was delivered to the flight test center. The jet is said to have high aerodynamic efficiency, low operation and maintenance costs, low fuel consumption and low engine noise.
"Our staff are working on the project nearly 24 hours a day and we would like to speed up the pace to conduct the first test flight, but it depends on the progress of various tests," says Yang Yang, director of the marketing research center at the COMAC Shanghai Aircraft Design and Research Institute.
"We are bullish on the growth potential of orders for the C919," he says.
China is gearing up to become a force in global aviation by building its own aircraft with homemade engines.
As of November last year, COMAC had received 570 orders for the C919 from more than 20 customers, including domestic airlines such as Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, Hainan Airlines, Sichuan Airlines and Joy Air.
Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines Corp, one of the three major state-owned Chinese airlines, will be the first to take delivery. China Eastern and COMAC signed a cooperation framework agreement at the Airshow China in Zhuhai in November.
Within a year of the test flight, China Eastern will start discussions to purchase five C919s, according to COMAC. China Eastern says it will fully showcase the safety and other advanced features of the jet and contribute to future development.
The single-aisle, 168-passenger, twin-engine jet is a commercial aircraft for medium and short haul. With independent research and development, it applies some advanced technologies for which the US government has banned exports.
The C919 features advanced composite materials and has reduced noise levels and low carbon emissions compared with other aircraft of its type.
"When the C919 aircraft enters the market, it is expected to drive the growth of related manufacturing industries, including airplane materials, electronic engineering, automation and mechanical manufacturing," says Li Xiaojin, professor of aviation economics at the Civil Aviation University of China in Tianjin.
"A cohort of Chinese talent will be fostered in those high-tech sectors. As a concept product with critical symbolic significance, the C919 is set to stimulate the growth of the Chinese aviation industry."
Meanwhile, the National Manufacturing Strategy Advisory Committee says that, in addition to the huge market potential of the C919 itself, the aircraft is expected to drive the growth of upstream and downstream sectors, including metallic materials, metallurgical processing, numerical control machines and dynamic control.
In addition to domestic demand, the C919 has won orders from some foreign airlines, including German startup PuRen Airlines and Thai airline City Airways.
Several financial leasing companies have ordered the jets. In recent years, financial leasing aviation services have become a new business model, providing solutions to medium and small airlines who often find it hard to afford the huge costs of purchasing aircraft.
For newcomers to the market like the C919, experts say it is a wise choice to expand market share by selling to financial leasing enterprises.
GE Capital Aviation Services, the largest commercial airline leasing company worldwide, has ordered 20 C919s. ICBC Leasing Co Ltd, one of the largest financial leasing companies in China, has ordered 45. COMAC has also received orders for 20 aircraft from SPDB Financial Leasing and 36 from CITIC Financial Leasing, among others.
Li says China's aviation authorities take the safety of the aircraft very seriously. If it can pass the navigability test, there shouldn't be any worries regarding its safety. But in terms of economic efficiency and comfort, there may be some distance yet between the C919 and foreign-made aircraft, he says.
"In the short term, the C919 won't have much of an impact on major European and US aircraft manufacturers, since it will take a very small market share and will mainly serve as a supplemental product in the market. In the long term, the jet has the potential to be exported to other countries," he says.
By 2030, the global market is expected to have demand for 14,500 single-aisle jetliners, and China will need 2,650 jets, according to a forecast by China Merchants Securities.
Besides the bullish view from the market, the government is backing up the development of several emerging industries, including aircraft manufacturing.
According to the Plan on Strategic New Industries during the 13th Five-Year-Plan (2016-20), released by the State Council in December, the C919 will have finished airworthiness certification work and will be delivered to customers by 2020. Also ARJ 21, another aircraft model made by COMAC, a short-to-medium range regional aircraft with up to 78 seats and a range of 2,225 km, should move into mass production and delivery.
In November last year, two ARJ 21 aircraft went into service, flying mainly between Shanghai and Chengdu. The flights have an occupancy rate of about 90 percent and COMAC is optimistic about the potential for market growth.
"We don't have a large number of aircraft in production. We are trying to satisfy the demands of the domestic market first and build a mature service system," Yang says.
In some sectors, including the manufacture of planes, cars and ships, the government plan encourages manufacturers to push forward digitalized designs, equipment upgrades, optimization of techniques and the intellectualization of logistics.
The aviation industry aims to strengthen its independent research and development work and establish a comprehensive system that covers the manufacture of engines, aircraft, related products and the management of safety.
By 2020, large commercial aircraft and regional jets will obtain certificates and will be delivered to customers. There should be significant breakthroughs in the development of aero engines to support the growth of homemade large aircraft. In addition, demand for turbine engines that use aviation biofuels is expected to grow, meeting the market requirement for small engines, according to the plan.
The government is also encouraging improvements in the adaptability and competitiveness of homemade commercial aircraft, and the development of more civil helicopters, multi-purpose aircraft, special mission aircraft and industrial unmanned aerial vehicles.
During the plan period, China's emerging industries, including information technology, high-end manufacturing, biology, environment-management and digital innovation, will each gain an output scale of around 10 trillion yuan ($1.4 trillion). The plan states that the added value of these industries will increase from 8 percent of GDP in 2015 to 15 percent by 2020, creating 1 million jobs each year on average.
For COMAC, since its establishment in 2008, the company has hired more than 5,300 graduates and the number of staff has increased to more than 10,000 from around 3,800. The aircraft manufacturer has also signed 139 overseas talents, and created a 168-strong team of senior scientific and technical professionals, according to the company.