The first C919 passenger jet made by the Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) is pulled out at the company's factory in Shanghai in a ceremony held in 2016. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

The Comac C919, the indigenous narrow-body airliner central to Beijing’s ambitious quest to throw down the gauntlet to the duopoly of the Boeing 737 and AirBus A320, has just secured 30 new orders from a domestic leasing company, taking accumulated orders to an impressive total of 815, Xinhua reports.

On Monday, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) signed a deal with China Huarong Financial Leasing Company for 30 C919s and 20 ARJ21s, the latter being the C919’s smaller sibling primarily for short flights that entered into commercial service in 2016.

To date, the C919 has garnered 815 orders from 28 customers at home and abroad, while ARJ21 sales have hit 453 from 21 customers, according to Xinhua.

But the state news agency has not disclosed how many of the 30 new C919 orders are firm purchases, rather than options.

Comac has been pitching the single-aisle C919 beyond SOE (state-owned enterprise) patrons that come under political pressure to shore up sales of the home-made jets. Still, flag carrier China Airlines has so far placed only five firm orders, the same as China Southern, the nation’s largest carrier by fleet size.

The C919 jets are assembled by Comac using key parts made in the US and elsewhere. Source: CNN

In a major setback, foreign carriers including some Southeast Asian budget airlines such as AirAsia for which the C919 was tailor-made, have opted to hold back their orders, apparently skeptical of the operationality and profitability of the China-made jets, despite deep discounts reportedly on offer by Comac. GE Capital Aviation Services, a major partner in C919’s research and development, has pledged to buy 10 planes.

A breakdown of the 800-plus orders for the C919 announced by Comac and Chinese state media so far reveal that, other than the 174 firm purchases, about 330 orders are indeed optional. Comac has not specified the nature of the remaining 300 orders, mostly by domestic aircraft-leasing companies backed by consortiums of state banks.

Buyers can cancel optional orders or purchases indicated in memoranda of understanding. For instance, Airbus indicated a possible rollback of production of its flagship A380 line even with optional orders from Emirates, the superjumbo’s biggest buyer.

Optional purchases from the Middle Eastern carrier didn’t materialize until a fresh batch of 20 firm purchases were announced in January, throwing a lifeline to the ailing A380s.

Despite the low-flying sales prospects, a C919 test plane completed its first long-distance flight last November, paving the way toward securing its airworthiness certificate in 2021, with mass production expected the same year.

The C919 has a maximum seating capacity of 200 and a standard range of 4,075 kilometers.

Huarong Financial Leasing is a subsidiary of state-owned China Huarong Asset Management Co, which specializes in disposal of bad loans and toxic assets.

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