BEIJING, CHINA — China's state-owned aircraft manufacturer COMAC held a ceremony on Sep. 29 to announce the certification of its C919 narrowbody passenger jet. The certification marks an important milestone for China's ambitious jetliner program that is intended to compete with Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX Family aircraft.

COMAC (The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China) launched the C919 program 14 years ago to develop a single-aisle jet that will be able to accommodate up to 168 seats.

China is the world's second-biggest aviation market, dominated by planes mostly from Airbus and Boeing. China partly aims to end the market dominance of these two aerospace giants with its new narrowbody passenger jet amid trade tensions with the U.S.

Despite being developed and constructed in China, the aircraft is highly dependent on Western components. The engines of the aircraft are provided by American General Electric and the French engine manufacturer Safran while the avionic systems are supplied by Honeywell International.

This situation has already led to delays in shipping of those components due to the current U.S. export licensing rules and remains as a major risk for future deliveries if China cannot replace them with in-house built technology products.

"Thus, we have an aircraft that is only superficially Chinese but is actually powered by Western technologies and systems. Turning it into a genuine Chinese aircraft would take well over a decade and many billions of dollars," 

said Richard Aboulafia, managing director of US-based aerospace consulting firm AeroDynamic Advisory.

The type certification by the Chinese civil aviation regulator guarantees the delivery of the aircraft to the launch customer of the type China Eastern Airlines. The aircraft is not expected to begin commercial flights until next year since it requires extensive crew training and other necessary procedures after joining the airline's fleet.

China aims to gradually replace single-aisle jets made by Boeing and Airbus in the next 20 years. According to a research note by Chinese Huaxi Securities, the demand for narrowbody passenger jets will be 300 per year on average. From this perspective, replacing all Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s over the next 20 years does not look realistic.

Like the COMAC's regional jet ARJ21, the C919 is not expected to secure Airworthiness Certification soon by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Europe's EASA. This would possibly limit the operation of the aircraft to domestic flights and countries with close ties to China.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has been working with CAAC for a while for the certification of C919, but the agency avoids stating a date for the validation.

COMAC's C919 has so far accumulated 815 orders from 28 customers. Among all, China Eastern Airlines is the only operator that announced a firm delivery schedule. The carrier is expected to take delivery of four copies in 2023.

On the other hand, CAAC did not approve the return of Boeing 737 MAXs to commercial service in China yet. However, major Chinese airlines placed orders for nearly 300 Airbus A320neo family jets in the last three months. Boeing announced that it has been considering finding new customers for the 737 MAXs intended for Chinese carriers.

Also read: Boeing to seek new buyers for 737 MAX jets previously intended for Chinese carriers