China’s Comac delivered on its promise to make a splash at this week’s Zhuhai Airshow today, as the state-controlled aerospace conglomerate revealed the identities of no fewer than six customers for the new C919 narrowbody. Together, Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Hainan Airlines, China’s CDB Leasing and GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS) have placed orders for 100 aircraft, according to Comac.
Comac revealed plans for the 150- to 190-seat C919 some two years ago and chose CFM’s new Leap-X1C turbofan to power the direct competitor to the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 in December last year. CFM International and Comac have nearly completed the joint-definition phase for the C919’s aircraft/engine combination, as program development progresses toward design freeze, scheduled for 2012, first flight in 2014 and first deliveries in 2016. CFM says it expects to freeze the Leap-X design by the end of next year and begin testing the first full Leap-X engine in early 2013.
Comac did not reveal how many airplanes each customer ordered or place a dollar value on the contracts. While Western manufacturers typically require non-refundable deposits as a condition for holding delivery positions, the Chinese don’t necessarily draw a distinction between firm orders and so-called “commitments.” Therefore, whether or not the agreements equate to firm orders under the Western definition remains unclear.
Nevertheless, the “orders,” particularly that by GECAS, lend further credibility to a project even Boeing and Airbus acknowledge carries strong potential to break their duopoly, particularly in the vital Chinese market. The signings came less than two weeks after Boeing released a new 20-year forecast for China that projects a demand for 4,330 new commercial airplanes worth $480 billion. Last year’s Boeing forecast placed demand at 3,770 airplanes worth $400 billion. According to Boeing’s latest projections, China’s fleet will triple in size over the next 20 years, making it the largest airplane market outside the U.S.