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China just flew its first passenger jet — and it’s a clunker

The Comac ARJ-21 is a point of pride for the country that painstakingly made it. But it's nowhere near a challenge for the Western companies that dominate civil aviation.

by Alberto Riva
Jun 28 2016, 6:35pm

An ARJ-21 photographed in 2010 in Zhuhai, China. Photo by stringer/Reuters

Tuesday was a big day for Chinese aviation. The first passenger jet built in China, the Comac ARJ-21, made its first commercial flight with launch customer Chengdu Airlines, from Chengdu in central China to Shanghai, a two-hour flight that went reportedly without a hitch, with 70 passengers on the 90-seat twinjet.

The new plane "offers valuable experience for China's aviation industry, especially in the large civil aircraft area," Wu Xingshi, the ARJ-21's former chief designer, told the Xinhua news agency. And that's what the jet will end up being: a way for China to gain experience, on the way to possibly competing one day with Western manufacturers of civilian airplanes. But as a commercial proposition, the ARJ-21 is a failure.

State-owned Comac has corraled around 300 orders for the aircraft, almost all from Chinese companies except for a few in Asia and Africa — Laos, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Republic of Congo — plus an order for five from US-based leasing company GECAS, a division of General Electric, which will then lease them out to airlines.

Almost a decade behind schedule, the ARJ-21 is a sales flop compared to Western jets of similar size. The Brazilian-made Embraer E-Jet family has won around 1,500 orders; Canada's Bombardier CRJ planes got more than 800. Both seat up to 100 people on journeys typically limited to a couple hours' flight, a category commonly known as "regional jets."

The smallest jets from Boeing and Airbus, the US and European giants that have a near-absolute duopoly on planes bigger than 100 seats, sell in the thousands. While not directly comparable to the ARJ, they show that established players in the passenger transport market are on a scale that Comac is nowhere near matching; in 14 years since the launch of the program, it has built just six ARJ-21s. Boeing builds six 737s in one and a half day on average.

Granted, the ARJ-21 has a list price estimated at around $30 million, way cheaper than similar Western jets. But it's also heavier, which means it burns more fuel. And Comac is an unproven entity; the only thing airlines outside of China really know about it is that it's taken a long time to put its first jet into the hands of its first customer (which also is a subsidiary of Comac itself, by the way, not an independent airline.)

The ARJ-21 took eight years from first flight to entry into service, and only six of them have been produced since 2008. The Boeing 787, for example, needed less than two years, for a far more complex, bigger airplane.

The Chinese market for commercial airplanes is huge and growing, and so far it's been a gold mine for planemakers — Western ones, that is. Boeing estimates that Chinese airlines will need to buy more than 6,000 airplanes between 2014 and 2034, worth almost $1 trillion. Most of them will be built by companies based outside China.

Comac is learning painstakingly to build planes that may one day get a slice of that pie, but right now, its technology is decades behind — and looks like a dicey proposition for export. Its current flagship product is not even allowed to fly in the West. The ARJ-21 does not have a certificate from the US Federal Aviation Administration or from its European equivalent saying that it's fit to carry passengers commercially, and so it can fly only in China and some countries that recognize Chinese certification.

Frequent flyers and aviation geeks who spot an ARJ may not even recognize it for the pioneer it is, or even do a double take: it looks just like a shrunken DC-9, a 50-year old American veteran whose production line closed years ago.

It is, in fact, basically a smaller copy of the last version of the DC-9. Its electronics are made by Western firms; its engines are straight-up American, made by General Electric (something that also helps explain why GE's aircraft-leasing arm has bought a handful. In comparison, it has thousands of Western planes.)

An MD-80, derived from the DC-9 and similar to the Comac ARJ-21, in 2001 at the Oslo airport, Norway. Photo by Jan Ovind/Scanpix/EPA

Even if the ARJ-21 eventually turns out to be a relative success, it's a small plane for short flights; no one is seriously challenging the Euro-American lock on big jets that seat hundreds, and on the profits from selling them. (The Russians are trying, but the general consensus is they won't have much better luck abroad than the Chinese.)

China is now betting hard on the C919, another Comac product roughly twice the size of the ARJ-21 in terms of passengers carried, meant to compete directly with the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, the most widely sold passenger jets in history. But the C919 hasn't even flown yet, and while Comac says it will take a lot less time to bring it to service than its smaller sibling, it hasn't yet won serious orders for it outside China either.

The conclusion is simple: for quite a long time, the only way for people to fly on a Chinese-built airliner will be to go to China and find one of the few routes it will cover.

"China matters more than ever as an aircraft market," wrote Richard Aboulafia, who heads aviation research firm Teal Group. "It matters less than ever as an aircraft producer."

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