China has long contemplated the development of a domestically produced airliner.  Previous endeavours, such as the infamous Y-10, were hindered by  economic and political barriers. This failure did not deter the Chinese aviation industry until 2002, witnessing the development of the ARJ21 (Advanced Regional Jet for the 21st century). The ARJ21 has been faring well, bagging orders from several domestic carriers along with an overseas customer in TransNusa, a low-cost Indonesian carrier. Fuelled by the success of the ARJ21 and significant contributions between $49 billion to $72.1 billion from the Chinese government, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) came up with the C919.

Development and Government Support

The timeline for the COMAC C919 has been anything but  straightforward. COMAC was formed in 2008 and a year later, announced its plans to develop the C919, initially scheduling its maiden flight for 2014 and delivery to airlines by 2016. The design of the aircraft was launched in September 2009, with its engine suppliers finalised by December of the same year. In 2013, it was revealed that the maiden flight would be delayed by a year to 2015. The C919 was officially unveiled at a ceremony in November 2015, followed by further setback leading to its maiden flight occurring in 2017. From 2020 onward, several other obstacles delayed progress before the C919 finally took off for its first commercial flight from Shanghai to Beijing in January 2024.

Launched in 2017, the C919 is a narrow-body airliner designed to accommodate 156-168 seats, marking China's ambitious entry into aviation manufacturing and aiming to establish itself as a significant player in the industry. Despite being the world's largest manufacturer, China has historically lagged behind in aviation, lacking an aircraft that fully meets the needs of its national carriers and effectively penetrates international markets dominated by the European Airbus and American Boeing duopoly. With the introduction of the C919, China seeks to rectify this disparity and ultimately compete with these industry giants.

 In its present conditions, the C919 is lagging behind its two main competitors, the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. The range for the Chinese aircraft is shorter than both its rivals. Seating capacity is another aspect where the C919 falls short. The Airbus A320 can hold up to 180 passengers while the Boeing 737 carries up to 210. The C919 is not as technologically advanced and fuel efficient as its rivals, aspects which tend to attract many economic airlines.  The only aspect where the C919 has an edge over its rivals is its price. Analysts estimate that the C919 costs approximately$50 million, which is notably less expensive compared to Boeing and Airbus aircraft, priced at around $121.6 million and $110.6 million, respectively.

The journey towards international relevance would be a long, challenging one for the COMAC aircraft. But it has taken off on a positive note with it being certified by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and entering commercial service in May 2023. For an aircraft to be considered worthy of operating in overseas markets, it must stamp its authority domestically. The biggest airlines in China mainly, China Southern Airlines(CZ) , Air China(CA) and China Eastern Airlines (MU) have recently placed orders with the COMAC for different variants of the C919 giving it a major boost. However, the task ahead would be to compete with or even better Boeing and Airbus aircrafts which still dominate the Chinese airlines fleets.

Building on this domestic success, China has begun testing the overseas market for the C919. Just as the ARJ21 was able to penetrate the Indonesian market, COMAC has also targeted the Southeast Asian market for its headline aircraft. The C919 recently made its debut at the Singapore Airshow, the largest aviation event in the Asia-Pacific. COMAC plans to hold test flights in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia opening the door for future sales.

Challenges and Geopolitical Context

COMAC aims to obtain the stringent airworthiness certification from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) by 2025. Getting this, would facilitate C919’s entry within the European Union, EASA member states and authorities having mutual recognition agreements with EASA, most notably the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States. Securing the EASA certification would be a significant milestone in the C919’s efforts to compete with the aviation industry’s dominant players. However, experts have doubted the 2025 target citing several differences in standards between the EASA and CAAC. These include rules regarding supercooled water droplets, volcanic clouds and elements that nullify human errors.

In addition to the certification challenges, Beijing also harbours ambitions of a fully home-grown passenger jet, which as things stand are far away from fruition. C919 is equipped with an engine which is manufactured by CFM International, a joint venture between American General Electric and French Engine Manufacturer Safran. According to a report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), C919 involves an amalgamation of supplies from Western firms. American firms contribute to about three fifths of C919’s suppliers while one third emanate from Europe. It is the Western suppliers which are supplying the heart and brains of the aircraft consisting of the communications, flight controls and other core components. COMAC aims to replace the current LEAP-1C engine with the CJ-1000 jet engine which is being developed by the Aero Engine Corporation of China. But such an operation would take a significant amount of time.

Besides the uncertainties mentioned above the C919 is also entangled in a geopolitical rivalry which involves the United States, European Union and its allies and China. The West remains bullish on the fact that China’s rise often diverges from the established international norms and standards which Beijing firmly opposes. This tussle has percolated several domains from ideology to technology. Recently, the European Union has announced that it is mulling hitting the Chinese EVs with additional tariffs. COMAC has also been subjected to the ire of this geopolitical rivalry having faced the sanctions threat under the Donald Trump administration for alleged links to the Chinese military. With Donald Trump having orchestrated this trade war with China and his prospects of getting elected again as the president high, there might well be a scenario where this rivalry gets intensified further. Beijing’s vision to break the Boeing-Airbus duopoly remains resolute however geopolitical tensions prove to be a significant barrier. Prolonged tensions can lead to heightened sanctions, regulatory hurdles, perception issues and economic restrictions. The impact of current and future geopolitics on the emergence of the C919 aircraft remains to be seen.

China feels that for a country to be considered a major power having its own airliner is a significant step. This is what it is aiming to do with the COMAC C919. The C919 is a symbol of China’s growing ambitions and a potential game changer in the aviation industry. It is a testament to China’s increasing technological prowess. The aircraft’s competitive pricing and market position provide it with a solid foundation. But the path to global aviation dominance is fraught with turbulence. The challenge to better its specifications to one up its rivals along with obtaining stringent certifications in an environment rife with geopolitical tensions are significant hurdles confronting the Chinese aircraft. The success of the C919 would hinge not only on the technological and economical parameters but also how the geopolitical landscape around it evolves.


Shashank Semwal has completed his Master's from the Jindal School of International Affairs in Diplomacy, Law and Business. His research interests mainly include Chinese foreign policy.


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