In January 2000, China had 453 passenger aircraft with 100 or more seats, plus another 47 on order. By December 2010, according to Airbus, the operational fleet had more than trebled to 1,386 aircraft, while the order backlog had grown 12-fold to 565, and forecasters were predicting that the fleet would treble in size again over the next 20 years.
In 2008, Airbus and two Chinese partners opened a local final assembly line for the A320 family at Tianjing. The first aircraft was delivered to Chengdu-based Sichuan Airlines in June 2009. Thirty-seven aircraft had been completed by the end of 2010 and Airbus expects the production rate to reach three a month in 2011.
However, to meet the forecast requirement for single-aisle airliners – 3,090 of them over the next 20 years, according to Boeing – the assembly line would have to turn out more like three a week from now on.
It will not have to, of course.
The country already has the world’s largest national fleet of Boeing 737NGs, with more on the way. Plus, there are continuing imports of Europe-assembled Airbuses, and China is forging ahead with development of its own aircraft industry.
Commercial Aircraft Company of China (COMAC)
A 2008 reorganisation saw the formation of the Shanghai-based Commercial Aircraft Company of China (COMAC), with responsibility for passenger aircraft of 70 seats or more, while Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is responsible for other large aircraft.
Since its formation, COMAC has continued to develop the ARJ21 regional jet and launched the full-scale development of its own single-aisle airliner, the C919. AVIC’s Xi’an, Chengdu, Shenyang, Harbin and Hongdu subsidiaries are suppliers to the C919 programme. Shenyang Aircraft and Chengdu Aircraft also helped design the ARJ21 and, along with Xi’an Aircraft, supply components. AVIC is a partner in the Tianjing Airbus final assembly line, as well as a major shareholder in COMAC.
Intended to carry 168 economy, or 156 two-class passengers, the C919 is due to fly in 2014, with certification and first deliveries following in 2016. Range will be 4,075km in standard configuration, or 5,555km for the extended range version.
Direct operating costs are expected to be 10% less than those of competing types, largely thanks to the lower fuel consumption promised by its CFM LEAP-X1C engines, which are similar to those offered on the upgraded A320NEO and should also help it meet ambitious noise and emissions targets. A wider cabin is another design objective.
Orders for the first 100 C919s, announced last November, came from Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Hainan Airlines, CDB Leasing and US lessor GE Capital Aviation Services.
The first 90-seat ARJ21-700 flew for the first time in November 2008. Accommodating up to 90 passengers, it has a range of 2,225km or 3,700km depending on configuration. It uses GE CF34-10A engines similar to the CF34-10Es that power the Embraer 190 and 195.
Certification test flights were continuing in early 2011, with first delivery expected later in the year. COMAC has orders for more than 200 copies and has said it expects to sell 850 over the life of the programme.
AVIC Aircraft, the group’s civil arm, is working on a 70-seat turboprop, the Modern Ark 700, having already developed the 56-seat MA60 and MA600 derivatives of the Antonov An-24 via the Xi’an Y-7. A few dozen MA60s have been delivered to foreign as well as domestic operators. The MA600 was certified in May 2010 and the first example was delivered to the Civil Aviation Flight University of China in Guanghan in December. The government of Laos has ordered another three, while China Eastern’s Xian-based subsidiary, Joy Air, is an operator of the MA60 and a likely customer for the upgraded version.
COMAC’s first market forecast, released in November 2010, estimates that China will need 3,750 large commercial aircraft by 2029, about one in eight of the global requirement for 30,230 mainline and regional jets. It assumes annual RPK growth in China of 7.7% against a global growth rate of 5.2%, and predicts a 2029 fleet of 4,439 commercial aircraft, made up of 687 regional, 2,950 single-aisle and 802 twin-aisle jets.
Embraer, which established Harbin Embraer Aircraft Industry with AVIC in 2003 to build ERJ-145s in Harbin, took a closer look at the regional jet market in its own November 2010 forecast. It predicted that China would take 950 jets with between 30 and 120 seats by 2029, a total comprising 20 with 30–60 seats, 425 with 61–90 seats and 505 in the 91–120 seat bracket. It also predicts that 120 turboprops will be needed.
The Brazilian manufacturer says only 132 of China’s 1,520 operational civil aircraft in July 2010 had 120 or fewer seats, a far smaller proportion than in Europe or the United States. Quoting Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) figures, the Embraer forecast says there were 1,340 scheduled domestic routes in 2009. Demand in 79% of all domestic markets was under 300 daily passengers, and 23% of flights departed with fewer than 100 passengers. Only 24% of routes had more than two daily flights, while 61% had one flight or less.
Regional development, and by extension regional aviation, is one of the focuses of government policy going forward. While China’s major cities have big airports and are adding more, many of the new airports being built or planned have much more modest traffic expectations. The newly opened fifth airport in Tibet, at Xigase, the second largest city, was designed to handle 230,000 people and 2,580 movements by 2020.
The benefits to remote communities are clear. A new airport in Mohe, near the Russian border in the country’s extreme north, was built to handle 120,000 passengers a year. Previously a 20-hour rail journey from Harbin, Mohe is now just four hours from Beijing, and less than two hours from Harbin with China Southern’s A320.
Other routes seem certain to become much bigger. Since the first scheduled services between Mainland China and Taiwan were launched in December 2008, for example, the number of weekly flights has grown to 420 and China plans to build four new airports and renovate four more in the West Strait Economic District on the mainland side of the Taiwan Strait.
This issue features in Routes News 2011 Issue 1