Two years ago, Fortune published a cover story on a Chinese commercial airliner under development. The cover touched on likely doubts about flying on one of these aircraft with the question, "Sooooo, is that a bad thing?" I admit, I do not recall a lot of detail about the plane that was being developed but, obviously, I recall the article. After reading the story, I moved on, not thinking much about Chinese commercial airplanes since. Until Monday.
On Monday in Shanghai, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) debuted its new C919. The plane is positioned as a competitor to the Boeing 737 and Airbus A321. Flight testing is planned to begin in 2016 with entry-into-service following in 2018. The C919 is built from international components "including avionics from Rockwell Collins Inc. and engines developed by CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric Co. and the Snecma engine unit of France’s Safran SA." Composite materials make up 12% of the airframe, down from an initial target of 20%. However, some observers feel the C919, despite its advanced technology, is "still a cut below the Western products in terms of overall technical excellence, to say nothing of the likely struggles with operational reliability and aftermarket support."
Comac says it has received over 500 orders, primarily from Chinese airlines. That figure demonstrates the challenge the aircraft will face in the broader global marketplace. Western airlines will likely want certifications from their own regulators as well as operational track records before they are comfortable considering the C919 alongside proven Boeing and Airbus products. Since Comac lacks a track record, I would absolutely want a U.S. airline to be cautious before integrating Comac aircraft into its fleet. I know I would be hesitant to book a flight on a C919 too early in its lifespan. Of course, the company has to know that any incident could doom its reputation and destroy its prospects before it has a chance to establish itself. That suggests Comac has every incentive to be 150% sure that everything about the new C919 will be airworthy once airlines start revenue service with the type.
I like the design of the C919. It definitely evokes the A320 but has design cues that make me think of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 in the area of the cockpit windscreens and wingtips, respectively. Ultimately, I expect that, at least in certain geographies and for certain aircraft classes, Comac will become a viable third option to Boeing and Airbus. The track record of Asian companies starting small and at the lower end of a market, only to later come to, if not dominate, be a major competitor is long. Think of Honda and Hyundai in cars, Sony and Samsung in electronics. Whether Comac can topple the current duopoly remains to be seen, but one has to believe Boeing and Airbus are taking the Chinese very seriously.