China’s first airliner sputters into service

by WorldTribune Staff, July 6, 2016

It took eight years for China, known for reverse engineering technology from the United States, to officially get its first commercial airliner off the ground. And many in the industry say the ground is probably the best place for it.

On July 5, the Comac ARJ-21, the first passenger jet built in China, made its first commercial flight, a two-hour journey from Chengdu in central China to Shanghai with 70 passengers on the 90-seat twinjet.

The Comac ARJ-21.
The Comac ARJ-21.

Analysts have pretty much chalked the ARJ-21 up as a failure. It may be cheaper to build, but it’s also heavier than comparable Western aircraft, meaning it consumes more fuel.

“China matters more than ever as an aircraft market,” wrote Richard Aboulafia, who heads aviation research firm Teal Group. “It matters less than ever as an aircraft producer.”

Comac, a state-owned company, has gotten a mere 300 orders for the ARJ-21, almost all from Chinese companies except for a few in Laos, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Republic of Congo — plus an order for five from U.S.-based leasing company GECAS, a division of General Electric, which will then lease them out to airlines.

The ARJ-21 is seen as “a sales flop” compared to Western jets of similar size. The Brazilian-made Embraer E-Jet family has around 1,500 orders; Canada’s Bombardier CRJ planes got more than 800. Both seat up to 100 people on journeys typically limited to a couple hours, a category commonly known as “regional jets.” The smallest jets from Boeing and Airbus sell in the thousands.

In 14 years since the launch of the program, Comac has built just six ARJ-21s. Boeing builds six 737s in one and a half days on average.

Boeing estimates that Chinese airlines will need to buy more than 6,000 airplanes between 2014 and 2034, worth almost $1 trillion. Most of them will be built by companies based outside of China.

Comac is banking on another airliner, the C919, which is about twice the size of the ARJ-21 in terms of passengers carried and is meant to compete directly with the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, the most widely sold passenger jets. But the C919 hasn’t flown yet and hasn’t won any serious orders for it outside of China.

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