C919's First Commercial Flight Heralds A New Era In Global Aviation Market
It is expected that with its single-aisle C919 aircraft, China will now offer a reliable low-cost alternative to existing international players, U.S. Boeing and European multinational Airbus along with the Russian Irkut MC-21.
China has made entry into the $2 trillion global aviation market with the first commercial flight of “Made in China” passenger jetliner C919 on May 28, 2023. According to media reports, the C919 single-aisle aircraft which made a 79-minute successful test debut on May 5, 2017, took to the skies from Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport with five crew members and 128 passengers on board at 10:32 a.m. (Beijing Time) and landed at Beijing Capital International Airport at 12:31 p.m smoothly which attracted worldwide attention.
Aviation analysts say that the C919’s inaugural commercial flight represents China's major step towards thwarting the global duopoly of Boeing 737 made in the United States and Airbus A320 made in Europe. After the completion of several rounds of test flights, operated by China Eastern Airlines, the commercial Flight, codenamed MU9191 has made China to join the ranks of the few nations that have developed homegrown large airliners: The United States, Russia, Brazil, Canada, the U.K., France and Germany.
Surely, the C919's 119-minute successful flight is a glorious feather in the cap of China's ambitious aviation industry. For a country that only four decades ago was considered backward, the C919 has symbolized the industrial might of an emerging superpower and its dream to dominate a new technological era.
It is expected that with its single-aisle C919 aircraft, China will now offer a reliable low-cost alternative to existing international players, U.S. Boeing and European multinational Airbus along with the Russian Irkut MC-21. Looking at China's technological progress on various fronts in the past four decades, it can be said with certainty that the C919 has the ability to break the monopolies of Boeing and Airbus, which have a duopoly in the global civil aviation business.
China is the world's second-largest and one of the world's fastest-growing civil aviation markets. Its aviation industry is a national priority, and the Chinese government is expending significant resources to develop domestic manufacturing capabilities, build new airports, train new pilots, and increase domestic maintenance capacity. China's top three airlines, i.e., Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines, are already among the world's top 10 carriers in terms of passenger volume.
According to the International Air Transport Association's forecast, China will become the world's largest civil aviation market by 2024-25. The passenger volume in the Chinese market is expected to reach 1.6 billion by 2037. On April 24, 2023, Airports Council International (ACI) estimated that China would contribute about 21% of global passenger traffic growth in the next two decades and overtake the U.S. as the largest aviation market in the world before 2035. China will need 5,110 single aisle planes - like the C919 - through 2035.
Not surprisingly, Boeing and Airbus have identified China as the single most important aviation market for sales over the next 10 to 15 years, and both companies are working hard to win orders from Chinese airlines. So it can be said that the C919 is China's answer to the Boeing 737 and Airbus 320 and it will reduce China's dependence on aviation giants Boeing and Airbus. More importantly, C919's commercial operation signals China's entry into the global aviation market as a strong competitor, shaking the dominance of Boeing and Airbus in the near future.
It is pertinent to mention that the State Council of China approved China's long-distance commercial aircraft project in February 2007. The Shanghai-based manufacturer, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) designed the twin-engine, single-aisle aircraft which is used for medium-haul commercial flights. The COMAC only took 10 years from the initiation of the project to test flight in 2017. It spent $6.5 billion developing the plane as a part of China's aviation dreams. On September 29, 2022, it obtained the Type Certificate from the Civil Aviation Administration of China. The narrow-bodied passenger aircraft was sent to China Eastern Airlines in December 2022 for testing.
China's first-ever domestically designed and built civilian airliner C919 is in the same category as the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. The "C" in the aircraft's name stands for both China and COMAC, while 9 symbolizes "forever" in Chinese culture and 19 represents the fact that the plane can host 190 passengers at maximum capacity. The development of C919 aircraft reflects China's manufacturing strength and signals a shift in the influence of the big powers on the international stage. No doubt, with the first commercial flight of C919, China once again has amazed the world with its "China speed".
For decades, China has been gearing up to realize its dream of "taking off" by boosting a global aviation power with nationwide strength. The jumbo passenger jet's development has been endorsed by Chinese President Xi Jinping to transform China into a creator of profitable technology. Xi visited COMAC in 2013 and his words: “Accelerate the construction of the world's top aviation company and continue to make new contributions to develop a strong aviation industry,” remain emblazoned on the walls of its production facility. Notably, President Xi met the representatives of the C919 project team in September last year and urged more breakthroughs in high-end equipment manufacturing. It is obvious that the C919 flight is China's bold step toward independence from Boeing and Airbus.
However, some Western media outlets including The Wall Street Journal and CNN claim China “assembled” rather than “manufactured” the C919, as it has used many foreign technologies. It's true that the C919's LEAP-1C engine was designed by the U.S.-French joint venture CFM International but that does not change the fact that the C919 was domestically made by COMAC. More than 200 Chinese subcontractors have served various parts for the C919 aircraft. More importantly, COMAC’s assembling of a modern passenger aircraft marks a major Chinese accomplishment. That's why China has independent intellectual property rights over the C919.
In a reply to Western criticism that China’s answer to Boeing and Airbus isn’t as ‘homegrown’ China’s state media, The Global Times commented on May 29, 2023 that “The maiden commercial flight by China’s first domestically-manufactured large passenger aircraft… ushers in a new era for the cooperation between Chinese manufacturers and foreign companies.” The origin of certain China's C919 passenger plane’s components does not mean that it is any less of an achievement. China is no longer merely assembling goods but making its own world-leading products.
The Chinese government wants the C919 to have 10% of China’s domestic commercial aircraft market by 2025. Five years from now, COMAC wants to be producing 150 C919 aircraft per year. As of January 2023, COMAC had received 1,200 orders for cost-friendly C919 jet aircraft including 34 orders from foreign companies. To blunt the Western criticism as well as U.S. sanctions on export restrictions on its U.S. suppliers on the horizon, China should focus on creating domestically-made engines and avionics if the country wants to become a major global aviation power.
In his book about China's aviation revolution, “The Dragon Takes Flight” (2015), Derek Levine described the C919 as part of an intense government attempt to show its citizens that their country possessed and could produce the world's most advanced technology. Now the successful commercial flight of the C919 has helped China reclaim its status as a great power by developing indigenous innovation. The C919 makes a Chinese 'dream come true', showing the world its manufacturing prowess, development of advanced technology and national ambition to regain past glory. The commercial debut of C919 flight once again convinces the world that China can now draw an incredibly gorgeous picture for the future of China's aviation industry.