Sleek, with a cute nose, the profile of China’s new glamour girl of the skies was plastered all over state-run TV before her maiden flight at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport in 2017.
Gliding into the air, the COMAC C919 was captured in all her glory as the commercial face for not only Beijing’s high-tech ambitions but also its status as a new aircraft manufacturing power.
Fast forward two years and the first narrow-body twin-engine jet airliner developed by China’s aerospace industry to rival Boeing’s 737 Max 8 and the Airbus 320 is still undergoing trials before entering service in 2021.
With fears growing about the stability of the Max 8 after the second deadly crash in five months, the C919 is expected to increase its order book.
“This is a key year for the [aircraft], and it is hoped that we can further optimize the flight tasks, enhance flight test efficiency, and complete all the tasks safely,” Lai Peijun, a flight test engineer with the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or COMAC, said.
Latest figures released last year by the influential aviation news site FlightGlobal revealed that the C919 had 1,008 orders, mainly from major domestic airlines, such as Air China, China Eastern and China Southern Airlines, as well as an array of leasing companies.
Overseas interest has been limited. But this is expected to increase in the next 12 months, especially as investigations continue into the two fatal crashes of 737 Max 8 aircraft in Indonesia last October and in Ethiopia last week.
On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump announced that the Boeing passenger airliner would be grounded after more than 40 countries decided to ban the jet from flying after China made the first move.
“They [the United States Federal Aviation Administration] have had difficulty making a decision, so we took the lead,” Li Jian, the deputy director of the Civil Aviation Administration, said in Beijing, after referring to a lack of stronger FAA measures regarding the Max 8.
“China will resume flights after it has received sufficient safety guarantees from Boeing,” Li added.
For the C919, this could result in an unexpected windfall in new orders, adding further controversy to the country’s first “homegrown” advanced passager aircraft.
To get the project off the ground in 2011, COMAC needed Western technology. A myriad of joint-ventures with Chinese companies was set up to manufacture crucial components such as engines and avionics systems.
Major US players, such as Collins Aerospace, GE Aviation and Honeywell Aerospace, rushed in to get a slice of the action. Canada’s Bombardier and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines also forged partnerships.
Amit Kaul, the head of the aviation wing of Honeywell’s Asia Pacific aerospace division, confirmed that the international corporation has more than 12,000 employees in China.
“We have 700 aerospace experts working across seven manufacturing plants, including two joint ventures for the C919,” Kaul told Avionics International, a business website which concentrates on technology trends in the aircraft electronics market.
“These include supplying the aircraft’s fly-by-wire system with HonFei Flight Controls and the supply of the braking system under a joint venture with Boyun Aviation Systems,” Kaul added.
Beijing’s hunger for state-of-the-art foreign technology has proved insatiable, fueling the trade war with Washington, despite renewed hopes of a peace deal.
The Trump administration has constantly accused President Xi Jinping’s government of forcing overseas companies to hand over cutting-edge tech before they can do business in the world’s second-largest economy.
China has repeatedly denied the allegation, even though the European Union has voiced similar concerns.
Yet a report published last year by the United States Trade Representative claimed that China was using joint ventures as “a key mechanism for obtaining the technology needed to support the development of a domestic supply chain for Chinese-made aircraft.”
“[COMAC] has made clear that foreign suppliers to the C919 program must enter into [a joint venture] with Chinese suppliers to participate in tenders for key components and systems,” the study highlighted. “This pressure is particularly prevalent for high-tech functions where Chinese capabilities are lagging.”
Still, the rewards for multinationals involved in China’s civil aviation market are immense and will continue to grow.
The International Air Transport Association has predicted that it will become the largest in the world by 2024 with air transport volume hitting 1.3 billion passengers annually, which would outpace the US.
To cope with rising demand, Boeing forecasted last year that Chinese airlines would need to buy 7,690 new aircraft worth US$1.2 trillion over the next two decades.
“The growth in China can be attributed to the country’s growing middle class, which has more than tripled in the last 10 years and is expected to double again in the next 10,” Randy Tinseth, the vice-president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a statement.
Anticipating the enormous potential, the American aerospace giant has steadily built up its profile in China’s aviation industry.
Last December, Boeing opened its first 737 completion plant in the country in a bid to increase sales over arch-rival Airbus.
The factory in Zhoushan, which is 290 kilometers (180 miles) from Shanghai, is part of a joint-venture agreement with COMAC.
When asked by the media in a conference call about the possibility of a technology transfer agreement, John Bruns, the president of Boeing China, said that the operation simply installed seats for “final delivery.”
“That is only a part of what we do in the production of airplanes,” he added.
Yet in the months ahead as the dual investigations continue into the 737 Max 8, Boeing could end up in aviation’s equivalent of musical chairs with Europe’s Airbus vying for the top spot.
As for the long-term, COMAC’s C919 will certainly have an international future, but it might not be China’s breakthrough airliner on the global stage.
“I think the biggest barrier for COMAC, if anything, is customer support,” Kevin Michaels, the managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, a consulting firm specializing in the global aerospace and aviation industries, told the South China Morning Post.
“It’s not just making the aircraft, it’s actually setting up an ecosystem where that aircraft can be in service 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. It’s always available.”
It seems even China’s new glamour girl of the skies will need to be kept in trim long after her looks have faded.