China’s COMAC added a trio of new airline operators for its ARJ21-700 aircraft over the weekend. China Eastern, China Southern, and Air China each took delivery of their first aircraft during a joint ceremony. The deliveries stem from orders placed in August 2019 where each airline committed to 35 of the type. Performing the delivery ceremony as a joint event, similar to the order announcement, helps COMAC demonstrate the strength of support for the program within the Chinese airline industry.
Interior configurations for the three airlines are nearly identical. Each features 18 rows of economy class seating in a 2-3 layout for a capacity of 90 passengers. This differs slightly from the on-board configuration for Chengdu Airlines, the launch and largest operator of the type; that cabin includes two rows of 2-2 business class seating. All seat in the cabin for the three new carriers include USB outlets mounted on the leg support. Neither inflight connectivity nor entertainment are offered.
A new airline dedicated to the new planes
One interesting twist in the deliveries comes in the way China Eastern is treating its new home-grown fleet. One, Two, Three Airlines (OTT) was established explicitly for regional flights with the new planes. OTT is slated to take 3 ARJ21s in 2020, then 6, 8, 9, and 9 in subsequent years to complete the fleet.
China Southern also established a new subsidiary, Xiong An Airlines, for similar reasons. Its first ARJ was even painted in that livery as of six weeks ago. But the airline took delivery under the parent carrier name. That could change as more Chinese aircraft join the fleet.
While this weekend’s deliveries were tied to the idea of the ARJ21 joining the ranks of the “major” international airline market the move by China Eastern (and, to a lesser extent, China Southern) shows a sliver of hesitancy in that progress. And, while the other operators – Chengdu Airlines, Jiangxi Airlines, and Genghis Kahn Airlines – are far from familiar names, it isn’t like these aircraft are flying outside of China anyways. Even with the new, larger operators in play, these planes are expected to remain within China for the foreseeable future.
OTT and Xiong An are also expected to operate other China-built aircraft, such as the C919, rather than letting them flow through to the parent airlines. But we’re still years away from seeing if that comes to pass.
The ARJ21-700 is an interesting aircraft and presents something of a challenge to Embraer as it seeks to capture part of the regional jet market. The range is flagged at 3,700 kilometers, roughly 800 km lower than the E190 and 1500 km lower than the E195-E2. That said, the Embraer becomes less efficient as stage length crosses above 2 hours according to David Neeleman, an airline executive with lots of Embraer experience at Azul and JetBlue, and plans to use the type in his newest venture. In that context the overall range limits of the ARJ21 may not be a problem relative to the Embraer.
The fuselage of the ARJ21 is an old design, based on the DC-9 and MD-80s of yore. But the aircraft sports a new wing from Antonov Industries, modern avionics and the GE CF34-10A engine, a cousin of the CFM34-10E that powers the E190. Overall efficiency should be relatively similar.
Operational reliability for the ARJ21 also appears to be much better than it was early in the aircraft’s history. In its first 17 months of service the type carried only 30,000 passengers, fewer than 60 per day. But part of that is tied to the planes being grounded for various reasons. The planes are still flying fewer hours generally than their more established brethren, but they no longer seem to be frequently taking many days off at a time. Or at least not nearly as regularly as they did when the planes first entered service.
But the ARJ21 has never really been the focus for competition on a global scale.
Grand ambitions for the C919 and CR929
COMAC’s ambitions are much larger with its C919 and CR929 programs. The C919 is a single-aisle jet that targets the Boeing/Airbus duopoly for short-haul travel. The CR929, developed in partnership with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, is a twin-aisle aiming for similar results on an even larger scale. The ARJ21 program has been posited as a stepping stone to these more grand aircraft.
Getting the manufacturing process smoothed, for example, is a massive undertaking for a new aircraft company. Even with some of the MD-80 tooling left in China when McDonnell Douglas halted assembly there, COMAC has been slow to build the ARJ21s. The first commercial flight took place four years ago and today roughly 35 aircraft have been delivered. A build rate of roughly two months per aircraft is not impressive, at least not in a good way. COMAC teasing 30 more to be built this year comes off as very difficult to believe.
Bu the ARJ is a good opportunity for COMAC to figure out what it is doing and to stabilize its operations. It allows COMAC to gain experience with certifications, manufacturing, supply chain, and more. It can translate those efforts into the C919 work and deliver a product that is in greater demand and more likely to be useful to the airlines when it is delivered.