China ramps up domestic jet development as OTT Airlines makes maiden flight with home-grown ARJ21 jet

Cissy Zhou
·4-min read

One Two Three Airlines (OTT Airlines), a subsidiary of China Eastern Airlines launched in February to expand domestically-produced aircraft to more markets, completed its maiden commercial flight on Monday.

The nearly two-hour flight from Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport to Beijing Capital International Airport will be followed by the opening of new routes to Nanchang, Hefei and Wenzhou over the next three months, according to the airline.

The Shanghai-based company used an ARJ21 jet for the flight, China’s first domestically made plane for the regional aviation market.

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The single-aisle model, made by the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), went into service in 2016, has a range of 4,000km (2485 miles) and a flying altitude equal to other commercial aircraft, Chinese media reported.

With 90 seats in 18 rows, the ARJ21 competes with the ERJ model made by Brazil’s Embraer and the A220 designed by Canada’s Bombardier, but marketed by Airbus.

There have been several breakthroughs in China’s home-grown aircraft industry in recent years, which has developed alongside the rapid growth of the aviation market.

The C919 – a larger, narrow-body aircraft made by Comac that China hopes will challenge the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus 320neo families – started cold-weather test flights last week in the far northern city of Hulunbuir.

The plane is also being tested in other parts of China, putting it on schedule for official deliveries at the end of next year, media in the mainland have reported.

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However, Beijing’s plan to produce a commercial aircraft to break the Boeing-Airbus manufacturing duopoly remains a costly pipe dream, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank, as Comac is “not even as capable as its Russian counterparts”.

The odds of success for the C919 project “are between slim and none” because Comac is not in the same league as Boeing, Airbus, Embraer and Bombardier, despite “massive state funding” and global attention, said the CSIS in a report earlier this month.

The plane‘s development could also be complicated by icy bilateral relations between China and the United States.

President-elect Joe Biden will be under pressure to continue some of the Trump administration’s tough China policies, especially in terms of technology, potentially making it harder for the world’s second largest economy to deliver the C919 as scheduled, given its dependence on US components.

Even if it can launch on time, Chinese experts have said that the US will “definitely” create difficulties for the C919 in the so-called freedoms of the air – a set of commercial aviation rights granting a country’s airlines permission to enter and land in another country’s airspace.

In November, Reuters reported that the Trump administration was to declare 89 Chinese aerospace and other companies, including Comac, to have military ties, and restrict them from buying a range of US goods and technology. The C919 relies on imports of a number of crucial parts, from its engines to its flight-control systems.

But when the US Commerce Department published its final version of the list last week, Comac was not included.

However, both the Shanghai Aircraft Design and Research Institute, which designs Comac planes, and Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing, which manufactures Comac planes, were on the list.

In its latest forecast, Boeing said Chinese airlines will need 8,600 new aircraft through 2039, 6.3 per cent higher than its previous prediction of 8,090 planes made last year. The new planes would be worth US$1.4 trillion based at list prices.

Three ARJ21 jets were delivered to OTT this year, six more are expected to arrive next year and 35 in total from 2021-25.

OTT will receive its first C919 in 2022, while China Eastern Airlines is expected to take delivery of its first C919 by the end of next year.

Comac has so far received more than 800 orders for the C919 from domestic and foreign customers, according to Chinese media reports.

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