China's first-ever mainline airliner built to compete with Boeing and Airbus just received certification after 14 years of production — meet the Comac C919

Comac C919.
Comac C919.Shi Yuge/VCG via Getty Images
  • China's aviation regulator has finally certified the Comac C919 narrowbody airliner after 14 years of work.

  • The narrowbody plane has had a long production due to technical issues and shipping delays.

  • China hopes the C919 will make it less reliant on foreign-made technology like Boeing and Airbus.

The C919 is a narrowbody passenger jet made by state-owned aerospace manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), built to rival the industry's top planemakers, Boeing and Airbus.

Comac C919.
Comac C919.Reuters

China's answer to Airbus and Boeing has arrived

After beginning production in December 2011, the first C919 prototype rolled off the assembly line in November 2015 and completed its inaugural flight over Shanghai in May 2017.

The first C919 rolls off the assembly line in 2015.
The first C919 rolls off the assembly line in 2015.STR/AFP via Getty Images

Source: Simple Flying

Production of the aircraft has been a tough road for the manufacturer, which initially hoped to have the twin jet enter the market in 2016.

Production of the C919.
Production of the C919.Reuters

Source: Aerotime Hub

However, years of technical difficulties and supply issues delayed the development.

Production of the C919.
Production of the C919.Reuters

Source: Nikkei Asia

Specifically, Comac was impacted by restrictions imposed by the Trump Administration in 2020 that blacklisted shipments of things like fight controls and jet engines. About 60% of the parts used to make the plane are supplied by American companies.

C919 cockpit on display in 2017.
C919 cockpit on display in 2017.Associated Press

Source: Nikkei Asia

Comac was forced to rely on special licenses from entities like General Electric and Honeywell to get the parts it needed for the jet, according to a report by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, DC.

Production of the C919.
Production of the C919.Reuters

Source: Nikkei Asia

While the company has faced political and technical challenges, it also failed to secure the C919's local certification from China's aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), by the end of 2021.

Comac C919.
Comac C919.Reuters

Source: Nikkei Asia

CAAC spokesperson Yang Zhenmei told Reuters in December 2021 that the company had not completed the number of required test flights. Specifically, the C919 had only flown 34 out of the necessary 276 flights.

First Comac C919 test flight.
First Comac C919 test flight.Reuters

Source: ReutersGlobal Times

Though, Zhenmei explained in January 2022 that the agency has imposed strict airworthiness standards for the jet, including over 40,000 days of manpower to review everything.

Comac C919.
Comac C919.Reuters

Source: Global Times

Now, 14 years after the program's launch in 2008, the Comac C919 has officially been certified by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).

Comac C919.
Comac C919.Shi Yuge/VCG via Getty Images

Source: Reuters

According to Reuters, the plane was certified at a ceremony in Beijing on Thursday, and photos online show a banner at the event that said "C919 aircraft type certificate issuance ceremony" in Chinese.

Comac C919.
Comac C919.Getty Images/Stringer

Source: Reuters, Twitter

China Eastern Airlines will be the C919's launch customer, though Reuters reported the plane may not enter service until next year, though it can be delivered.

A China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 aircraft is parked on November 13, 2021 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China.
A China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 aircraft is parked on November 13, 2021 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China.VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Currently, China Eastern has a firm order for five C919 jets to be operated by its low-cost subsidiary OTT Airlines. The carrier currently flies another Comac-made plane, the ARJ21.

OTT Airlines Comac AJR21.
OTT Airlines Comac AJR21 at Shanghai Pudong International Airport.Yin Liqin/China News Service via Getty Images

Source: Aviacionline

The AJR21, which stands for advanced regional jet, is a small twin-engine jet that first entered commercial service in 2016 with Chengdu Airlines.

Chengdu Airlines AJR21.
Chengdu Airlines AJR21.REUTERS/Aly Song

Source: Simple Flying

According to OTT, the C919 will be based in Shanghai and fly domestic routes to cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Xiamen.

Comac C919.
Comac C919.Reuters

Source: Aviacionline

In addition to China Eastern, a total of 815 firm and provisional orders have been made from 28 entities, most of which are Chinese carriers, like Hainan Airlines...

Hainan Airlines
Hainan AirlinesTonyV3112/Shutterstock

Source: Simple Flying, Comac

...Sichuan Airlines...

Sichuan Airlines.
Sichuan Airlines.Sergei Bachlakov/Shutterstock

Source: Simple Flying

...China Express Airlines...

China Express Airlines.
China Express Airlines.Markus Mainka/Shutterstock

Source: Simply Flying

...Air China...

Air China.
Air China.Dmitry Rukhlenko/Shutterstock

Source: Simple Flying

...and non-Chinese entity GE Capital Aviation Services, now known as AerCap, which has ordered 10.

AerCap.
AerCap.AerCap

Source: Airline Geeks, AerCap

Comac intends the C919 aircraft to be a short and medium-haul workhorse to connect hubs to both large and small cities.

Comac C919.
Comac C919.Reuters

Source: Comac

Forbes reported the list price of the C919 is about $91 million — nearly double the $50 million that experts estimated. That is close to the price of Boeing's 737-800 and Airbus' A320neo, which are about $106 million and $111 million, respectively, as of 2021.

Airbus A320.
Airbus A320.Airbus

Source: Statista, Simple Flying, Forbes

The plane has a range of 2,532 to 3,452 miles and can seat between 158 and 168 passengers, depending on the cabin configuration.

C919 cabin interior display.
C919 cabin interior display.Reuters

Source: Comac

Based on various mockups, the plane can be fitted with an all-economy cabin…

Economy mockup on the C919 in 2014.
Economy mockup on the C919 in 2014.JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

Source: Comac

…or in a multi-class configuration with economy, business, or another premium seat.

Person trying out the C919's business seat mcokup in 2012.
Person trying out the C919's business seat mcokup in 2012.Reuters

Source: Comac

Currently, the C919 is powered by CFM LEAP-1C engines, which are being made in partnership with General Electric and France's Safran.

CFM LEAP engines.
CFM LEAP engines.PIERRE VERDY/AFP via Getty Images

Source: CNET

But, the C919's engine is a variant of the LEAP-1A seen on the A320 and 737 families, which could explain the jet's lower range, per Forbes.

Airbus A320.
Airbus A320.Airbus

Source: CNET, Forbes

However, China wants to eventually use its own engine on the plane to alleviate its reliance on foreign-made technology.

China-made CJ1000 engine.
China-made CJ1000 engine.Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Source: Reuters

So, the country is developing the AECC CJ-1000A, a turbofan jet engine that it hopes will be complete by 2025.

China-made CJ1000 engines.
China-made CJ1000 engines.Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Source: Reuters

But, the country doesn't want to just make its own engines, it wants to manufacture all of the C919's parts in-house.

Cockpit mockup of the C919.
Cockpit mockup of the C919.Reuters

Source: Department of Justice

To do this, China has been accused of launching a multi-year hacking operation to acquire the intellectual property of the foreign companies that supply parts for the jet, according to a Crowdstrike report published in 2019 and a Department of Justice indictment.

Employees working on the C919.
Employees working on the C919.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Source: Department of Justice

Between 2010 and 2015, the hackers successfully infiltrated entities like Honeywell, Safran, and General Electric, the report says.

Honeywell headquarters.
Honeywell headquarters.DAVID BREWSTER/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Source: Department of Justice

This may result in the C919 not being the same quality as Western competitors because many foreign companies were unwilling to supply their parts due to the allegations.

Comac C919.
Comac C919.ALY SONG/AFP via Getty Images

Source: Forbes

"The C919 is yesterday's technology available today," aviation consultant Michael Boyd told Forbes. "Domestically, the open question is how much damage the [Chinese government] will do to Chinese carriers by forcing them to fly these things."

Comac C919.
Comac C919.Reuters

Source: Forbes

Regardless if the C919 ever operates outside China, the country hopes the jet will help it become more technologically self-reliant and advance China's aircraft manufacturing industry.

Comac C919.
Comac C919.Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Source: Reuters

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