The first commercial flight of the C919, China’s indigenous twin jet laden with political significance, may be delayed indefinitely due to the US-China tech war.
Beijing has sought to break the Boeing-Airbus duopoly on passenger jets by filling its domestic skies with homegrown airliners made by the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac).
The single-aisle C919 is Comac’s aspirant answer to Boeing’s 737 series that currently makes up the bulk of the growing fleets of state-owned carriers like Air China, China Eastern and China Southern.
Now, President Donald Trump’s administration is said to be considering adding Comac to the 89 airframers and aviation companies on a list of Chinese entities restricted from dealing with American companies for dual-use technologies, solutions or products made with American know-how due to their purported ties with the Chinese military.
Comac is yet to comment on its rumored soon-to-be inclusion on the US Commerce Department’s such blacklist, nor did it reply to Asia Times’ emailed inquiries about the potential impact on its top-priority C919 project.
China News Service quoted a Comac executive as saying the company was assessing likely outcomes if Trump put his company on the US’ so-called “entity list”, but claimed current sourcing deals with General Electric (GE), Honeywell and others would continue as normal.
The company could also potentially try to reverse-engineer key components it could not manufacture, such as engines, avionic and auxiliary power systems furnished by American partners like GE and Honeywell.
Comac is not hiding the fact that its C919 relies on the high-performance LEAP-1C engine and powerplant systems supplied by CFM, a joint venture between GE’s aviation arm and French engineering firm Safran. No homemade alternatives are powerful and economical enough to propel the C919 and its maximum load of 168 passengers and maximum range of 5,555 kilometers.
It remains to be seen if CFM will have to comply with the US sanctions if they are gazetted by the Trump administration. That apparently will be determined by how much US ingenuity and technologies are involved in the development of the LEAP engines, which consume 15% less fuel compared with the engines on 737s, according to GE.
Comac’s cockpit view was less than rosy well before US sanctions loomed. The state firm had already pushed the aircraft’s commercial roll-out from 2017 to the end of 2021 due to problems found during test flights and disruptions caused by Covid-19.
But potential buyers of the C919, mostly Chinese carriers, may not be too bothered since most have not committed to firm orders of the airliner, which is yet to be certified to fly.
Comac has said it has secured 815 orders for C919 jets from 28 clients – though most of these orders are optional ones – and it aimed to deliver 150 planes each year from its Shanghai plant. It said as much as 60% of the plane’s parts and systems would be sourced domestically.
But a leaked draft C919 maintenance memo issued to China Eastern pilots showed that its power plant, avionics flight control, power supply systems and landing gear sets, among other components, all bore striking similarities to those on 737s.
Chinese suppliers, in fact, mostly made wingtips, tailwings and other peripheral parts as well as passenger cabin outfitting like seats and upholstery.
This is in line with previous revelations by Chinese and foreign media reports about the challenges Comac has met in its bid for technology self-reliance with the C919, particularly when China at present cannot even mass-produce the blades for mid-range aircraft engines.
Xinhua also made a candid admission in its feature report on the C919 when it made its first test flight in 2017 that it would still be a “long haul” quest for China to break the duopoly of Boeing and Airbus in the Chinese market.
Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst and vice president at Teal Group, a US-based aerospace analysis outfit, wrote on his blog that Comac was hard-put to make avionics systems and engines by itself and that painting a Chinese flag on an aluminum tube would not mean Comac could make an “indigenous” plane.
Comparisons have also been made between Comac’s lack of core technologies for the C919 to take flight and Huawei’s predicament following the US chip ban, with posts trending on Chinese aviation forums saying Comac could be in a far worse crisis than acknowledged as any US bans on engine sales would instantly ground the project.
Lu Feng, a senior engineer with China Aviation Industry Research Center, a civil-military institute under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, told reporters that the US could clip the C919 wings by waiting until the last minute before its commercial launch to ban the sale of US-made engines and other systems.
Yet the need to get the C919 to local airlines is becoming more urgent as Chinese skies fill up again.
While international terminals remain deserted, the domestic halls of major aviation hubs across China have seen passenger flows bounce back to pre-Covid levels since October. The holiday season that will last until the week-long Lunar New Year break in February will mean brisk business for most Chinese carriers.
Preliminary data from the International Air Transport Association show Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenzhen have beaten other global airports to be the busiest hubs after the coronavirus snarled air travel worldwide.
The western Chinese city of Chengdu even saw the highest aircraft movements across Asia since May as the recovery of domestic travel gathered pace while global aviation is still in a tailspin.
The latest passenger figures from China’s Civil Aviation Administration also show September’s domestic travel performance climbed nearly back to last year’s level, with 47.75 million people traveling by air that month, just 2% fewer than the corresponding figure of September 2019.
The original Covid epicenter of Wuhan and airports in central China saw a collective 20.8% year-on-year jump in September passengers.
China is poised to overtake the US to become the world’s largest aviation market within the next decade. Boeing noted in a report in November that China would need more than 8,000 new passenger jets by 2040.
Of these, 6,450 would be single-aisle, narrow-body types for domestic and short-to-medium haul regional routes, a lucrative market that the C919 aspires to tap.
Comac faces other setbacks beyond possible US sanctions. Reports indicate collaboration with Russia to launch a wide-body CR929 hit a snag amid friction between Beijing and Moscow over the transfer of core technologies.
It is also believed that Beijing may want to subject its approval for Boeing’s 737 Max to resume flying in China to the prospect of Comac’s continued sourcing of engines and parts from American firms.
Earlier this year, the state-owned China Development Bank Financial Leasing Co canceled 29 out of the 99 737 Max plane orders and postponed payment and delivery-taking to as late as 2026 over lingering safety concerns about the aircraft.