The first jetliner developed entirely in China, the C919 received the certificate of airworthiness from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) on Thursday.
With the authorization, COMAC, its manufacturer, will be able to start deliveries of the first aircraft to Chinese customers, although another certification, that of production, is still needed for the assembly line to start working as expected.
Launched in 2008, the C919 is a narrow-body commercial jet proposed to compete with the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, which are currently the best-selling passenger planes in the world.
According to COMAC, the plane can accommodate up to 168 passengers and has a flight range of 4,075 km – the Chinese planemaker is also working on the development of the C919ER, with a range extended to 5,555 km.
The first customer for the C919 will be China Eastern Airlines, which is expected to start commercial activities with the aircraft later this year with its subsidiary OTT Airlines.
The state-owned airline has a firm order for five C919s plus an option to purchase another 15 units. The aircraft also has agreements with at least 30 other Chinese airlines and lessors, for a total of at least 815 orders.
The development and flight testing of the C919, using six prototypes, was one of the most time-consuming in the recent history of commercial aviation.
COMAC’s original forecast was to launch the aircraft in 2018, but the schedule has suffered a series of delays due to tough US component export licensing rules and even accusations of industrial espionage.
Despite being assembled in China, the C919 still relies on many components imported from the West, such as engines and avionics, which are supplied by companies such as General Electric, Safran and Honeywell International.
In the medium and long term, these items are expected to be replaced by similar Chinese-made ones. Although it is a local project, Chinese media and COMAC have yet to officially comment on the certification of the C919 on Thursday.
Domestic flights only
The C919, for now, will only operate in the Chinese aviation market and in countries with close ties to Beijing. Its export, especially to operators in the West, depends on certification from international aeronautical bodies, such as the FAA and EASA, from Europe, which has been working on the validation of the Chinese jet since 2017.
However, despite its slow development, the C919 hits the market at a highly competitive price. The aircraft is valued at about $101 million, below the list prices of the A320neo and 737 MAX.
The C919 is the second product launched by COMAC. The state-owned manufacturer’s first commercial aircraft was the ARJ21-700 regional jet, an aircraft based on the old McDonnell Douglas DC-9.
The Chinese company, in partnership with the Russian group UAC, is also working on the development of the CR929 widebody, which should hit the market by the end of this decade.