The much delayed ARJ has started test flights for launch customer Chengdu Airlines. The first two deliveries are set occur in April or May. This will be the first Chinese attempt at offering a regional airliner.
So how does their offering compare to competitive products that exist today?
The Chinese have publicly stated that they did not expect to produce a world-beating aircraft out of the box, and that the ARJ-21 was to be a learning experience. But they did expect to make an aircraft that could be competitive, given the capital cost differential, for Chinese airlines, which they have done.
The table above shows the seating is virtually identical in a typical two-class configuration. But then the other numbers come into play – the ARJ is much heavier; 16% more than the CRJ and 14.4% heavier than the E-175. This causes an interesting requirement – all three use various version of the GE CF-34 engine. The CRJ needs 14,500 pounds thrust, the E-175 needs 14,200 pounds, while the ARJ needs 17,000 pounds. This puts the ARJ at a substantial disadvantage in terms of fuel burn and economics.
Of course, thrust requirements are closely linked to weight, and the ARJ-21 is heavier than its competitors. The extra MTOW doesn’t give the aircraft any benefit. It flies slower and has close to the range, but not quite, of the E-175.
A key differentiator in favor of the ARJ-21 is its cabin, which is wider that its competitors by a significant amount; 22.8% wider than the CRJ and 14.8% wider than the E-175. The question is whether this turns out to be an advantage that airlines can really use.
In summary, it seems the ARJ is simply too heavy to be competitive economically for airlines that have a free choice in fleet selection. If an airline orders this aircraft based on economics, it would need to be offered, shall we say, a “deal it can’t refuse.” On the face of it, the ARJ is not even closely competitive with its Western competition, except on price.
But that is not what COMAC is focused on. China is playing the long-term game, gaining experience in the industry. The ARJ is a great vehicle from which to learn the art of making commercial aircraft. It doesn’t matter that the ARJ is essentially a DC-9 replica. What matters is that China and COMAC will get better at the process – the C919 is likely to be much better than the ARJ-21 when compared to its peers – like the A320ceo and 737NG. The C919 aircraft will be economically outclassed by its competition, the A320neo and 737MAX. But that won’t matter either, as again, that is the short-term perspective, and a ten-year piece of a fifty-year goal. The C929, or whatever airplane follows, will significantly close the gap as China continues down the aerospace learning curve.
Aerospace is about the long term, and COMAC is a comer. Their planned joint venture into the wide-body space with Russia could break the current duopoly in the wide-body segment. The question is how long it will take for COMAC to become fully competitive with Airbus and Boeing. It took Airbus about 20 years to develop the A320, its first truly world-class competitive aircraft. Twenty years from now, COMAC will be a much different company than we see today, and in thirty years, could be one of the big three aircraft manufacturers, rather than the non-factor in the market that it is today.