The C919 single-aisle jetliner designed to seat up to 190 passengers — called a jumbo in China but barely qualifying for that title — is seen as a challenge for US plane-making giant Boeing and European rival Airbus rather than as it is frequently presented, a demonstration as to how the three makers will work together. Instead, it is eventually intended to dominate the global jetliner market.
Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang said, "To develop the large-scale airliner is a strategic decision of the Chinese government and one of the major programs for building up an innovation-oriented country."
This is not a short-term project.
Work on a prototype began only last month. A maiden flight isn’t scheduled until 2014, and the jet won’t be available commercially until 2016. And, when it is, initially it will be aimed primarily at China’s domestic market. Yet China is already banging the drum saying the twin-engine, narrow-body design of the C919 is superior to the planes it would compete against: the Boeing 737, the best-selling jetliner in the world, and its competitor, the Airbus A320.
Chen Jin, sales chief of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, which will make the planes, told China’s English-language China Daily newspaper that the plane "is more advanced compared to the current operating aircraft of the same size. It will use between 12% and 15% less fuel, and help reduce carbon emissions."
This is a big ambition and the question is as to whether it is possible. Most analysts simply do not see it happening. That is, coming out on the international market and seriously rivaling Boeing and Airbus. The Chinese manufacturer faces many technical and commercial challenges.
For the Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, or COMAC, to achieve the fuel efficiency needed to make its new plane attractive to airlines seeking lower operating costs is a difficult proposition.
The plane’s designer, Wu Guanghui, told China Daily that COMAC is turning to new, lightweight carbon composites in place of steel for the plane’s construction to gain the 12% to 15% in fuel efficiency.
Yet Boeing and Airbus have delayed plans to build more fuel-efficient, narrow-body planes to replace the 737 and A320 because they say that composites alone won’t contribute enough fuel-efficiency savings to justify the billions of dollars of design costs.
One big thing that the "big plane" project has going for it commercially is China’s booming travel market, which would be the first competitive battleground for COMAC’s ambition of being a global competitor.
USA Today provided one pragmatic view: Cheng Zhong, a mechanical engineer, said, "Airplanes cost China billions of dollars every year. Since we have the capability to make them, why let foreigners earn all the money?"