China's first homegrown passenger jet, the C919, takes off on its first commercial flight

BEIJING/SHANGHAI — China Eastern Airlines on Sunday (May 28) sent the country’s narrow-body jet C919 on its first commercial flight, marking the homegrown plane’s entry into passenger service and a milestone for China’s efforts to become more self-reliant.

Commercial Aviation Corp of China (COMAC) began developing the C919 15 years ago to rival the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX single-aisle jet families. President Xi Jinping has hailed the project as one of China’s best innovative achievements.

The plane took off from Hongqiao airport in Shanghai, where both COMAC and China Eastern are headquartered, slightly before 10.32am local time (0232 GMT), bound for Beijing Capital Airport, according to flight tracker app Variflight.

After the nearly 2.5 hours flight to Beijing and a turnaround of one hour 40 minutes, the plane is scheduled to fly back to Shanghai.

The plane is set to make a longer flight to the southwestern city of Chengdu on Monday and back.

Lv Boyuan, a 21-year-old student and aviation enthusiast, was at the Shanghai airport on Sunday to catch a flight to Chengdu where he planned to take a C919 flight back to Shanghai the day after.

“I’ve been really looking forward to its flight and especially because it’s a new generation aircraft, unlike Boeing and Airbus whose planes have been around for a number of years now,” said Lv.

State-backed China Eastern Airlines ordered five C919 jets in March 2021 and took delivery of the first plane in December. It has said it expects to receive the remaining planes this year.

The C919 had received 1,035 orders from 32 customers by the end of 2022, according to COMAC data. This year, a company official told media that the company had received more than 1,200 orders for the jet.

It made its first flight in 2017 after years of delays and has conducted numerous test flights since.

Although the C919 is assembled in China, it relies heavily on Western components, including engines and avionics, from companies including GE, Safran and Honeywell International.

Li Hanming, an independent expert on China’s aviation industry, said most of the C919’s orders were letters of intent from domestic customers. Its few foreign buyers include lessor GE Capital Aviation Services Ltd.

“For the C919, the domestic market is big enough,” Li said.

Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of industry publication FlightGlobal, said the international market for the C919 is questionable given that neither EASA nor FAA have certificated the aircraft.

“Until this happens, key international markets will be closed to the C919,” Waldron said.

The C919’s predecessor aircraft, the ARJ21, is operating in Indonesia, suggesting that the C919’s international future lies mainly in the developing world, he said.

COMAC expects to be able to produce 150 C919 planes a year in five years, according to domestic media reports published in January.

Besides the C919, COMAC also manufactures the ARJ21 aircraft, a short haul 90-seater, that entered commercial operations in 2016. It is flown by major Chinese airlines and Indonesia’s TransNusa.

It is also developing a CR929 widebody jet in collaboration with Russia, but the company has not issued any recent updates. 

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