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The sight of three Chinese executives drinking wine went largely unnoticed as 1,000 or so smartly dressed delegates enjoyed live performances by the cast of Riverdance and Spanish pop star Enrique Iglesias at Dubai’s World Trade Centre on Monday evening.

Wei Yingbiao, a prominent Chinese Communist Party member, and Qianyi Jiang and Yunfeng Yue, sales and marketing executives from Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), were in town for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual conference, a two-day gathering that brings together aviation executives from around the world.

Convincing airlines to buy planes that are not made by Boeing or Airbus has been a thankless task for years. But as the Chinese trio danced to the Spanish singer, they had reasons to be cheerful.

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“As far as Comac is concerned: now is the time,” said Sir Tim Clark, the British executive who leads the airline Emirates. “They have a golden opportunity to move ahead and take advantage of the supply chain issues facing legacy manufacturers [like Boeing and Airbus].”

Clark’s remarks followed similar sentiments expressed by Ronald Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific. He said earlier this year that aviation could be moving towards an “ABC market”: Airbus, Boeing and Comac.

Comac was founded in May 2008 with the goal of producing a large single-aisle airliner. Production of what became the C919 began in 2011, with the first prototype unveiled four years later. Its maiden flight was on May 5, 2017. With between 158 and 192 seats, the C919 is designed to compete with the two short-haul flagships: Boeing’s 737 Max and Airbus’s A320neo.

The C919 made its debut outside China at the 2024 Singapore Air Show

The C919 made its debut outside China at the 2024 Singapore Air Show


Comac’s first demonstration flight outside China, in Singapore, was viewed as a watershed moment for the company and for President Xi’s ambition of establishing a genuine competitor to Boeing and Airbus.

The company has spent an estimated $72 billion during the past 15 years to take on the established players — much of which has gone on learning how to imitate western technology.

China’s aviation dreams were dented by the pandemic as air travel ground to a halt. It would not be until September 2022 that Comac finally received Chinese safety certification for its C919.

Comac’s debut in Singapore in February this year came only a month after Boeing was plunged into a fresh crisis following the mid-air blowout of a window on a domestic flight in America.

Boeing has been beset by problems with its 737 Max aircraft

Boeing has been beset by problems with its 737 Max aircraft


Its first international C919 order with Tibet Airlines, which agreed to buy 40 of the aircraft, was followed by Comac taking the plane on tour to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Airbus has not endured the fatal crashes experienced by Boeing with its 737 Max or had calamities such as windows falling out, but it has been hit by production delays because of supply chain problems coming out of the pandemic.

“It looks a bit like an Airbus,” Christian Scherer, chief executive of the Franco-German company’s commercial aircraft business, said after seeing the C919 for the first time in February. “It’s not going to rock the boat in particular,” he insisted.

Scherer’s rebuttal is justifiable, not least because there are currently only six C919s in service, but there are more than 1,000 on order, predominantly by Chinese aircraft leasing companies, according to the aviation consultancy IBA Group. Meanwhile, the “big three” Chinese airlines are doing their part to help Comac gain altitude. Air China has a firm order for 100 aircraft, while China Southern and China Eastern have both ordered 105.

The list price of an Airbus A320neo is $111 million compared with Comac’s C919, which is listed at $99 million

The list price of an Airbus A320neo is $111 million compared with Comac’s C919, which is listed at $99 million


There are parallels to be drawn between Comac and Chinese electric vehicle manufacturers such as BYD, which is now neck and neck with Tesla in global sales. These challengers have set their sights on shaking up the market and enticing western motorists with low prices.

However, there is some caution that tough regulations in the airline industry will prevent the Chinese manufacturer from being an overnight success. Sign-off by the European aviation safety regulator EASA — required to allow Comac jets to land in Europe — is not scheduled until next year. It is likely to take even longer to convince America’s Federal Aviation Administration.

Meanwhile, unlike Chinese EVs, which are significantly cheaper than western counterparts, Comac planes are not likely to command such a hefty discount. The C919 has a list price of $99 million (£78 million) compared with $111 million for an A320neo. The Boeing 737 Max 8 sells for $122 million.

The narrower differential is because EV prices can be kept down by cheap labour, but aircraft manufacturing is much more capital intensive — meaning Comac has a large fixed cost base, which can only be partially mitigated by handsome state subsidies.

President Xi examines a mocked-up Comac C919 cockpit

President Xi examines a mocked-up Comac C919 cockpit


Having travelled to the company’s factory in Pudong on the outskirts of Shanghai, Willie Walsh, the former British Airways boss who now heads IATA, heralded the “great job” Comac had achieved. But he added: “Expecting Comac to challenge Boeing and Airbus outside of China, that is going to take a considerable amount of time.”

Many are sceptical that Comac can force two giants to become three. “It’s not inevitable, I think it’s unlikely,” Scott Kirby, the chief executive of United Airlines, told a trade podcast last week.

To really become a contender Comac will need to make its next model, the widebody C929 with a range of up to 7,500 miles and 280 to 400 seats, a reality. Unlike the C919, which uses engines from Franco-American manufacturers and imports 40 per cent of its components from overseas, the C929 is being touted as an all-Chinese affair. It would fit more neatly into Xi’s broader “Made in China” strategy, a campaign to reduce reliance on foreign manufacturers.

In the near term, the growth of Comac could hit the ambitions of Airbus and Boeing to sell more aircraft into the world’s second-biggest economy.

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“China has long been a highly attractive hunting ground for Boeing and Airbus,” said Jonathan McDonald, an analyst at IBA Group. “China’s attempts to build indigenous aircraft have varied in success. The Comac C919 may be the first to [affect] those crucial Boeing and Airbus narrowbody programmes, at least within its home market.”

Change definitely seems to be in the air. He Dongfeng, the chairman of Comac and a top Chinese Communist Party official — he was a member of Xi’s central committee between 2017 and 2022 — evidently believes that global domination is possible.

During an aviation conference in Riyadh last month, He Dongfeng talked about Comac’s ambition of “enhancing global connectivity and diversity”.

Clark, the man credited with transforming Emirates into the airline heavyweight it is today, admits that Comac has hurdles to clear — but adds that the company should not be underestimated.

“They have to get their aircraft on to the American register, the European register. But knowing the Chinese, they are probably going to be fairly versatile and fairly quick in upgrading their standards of build, of safety and propulsion,” he said.

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