The Rise Of The COMAC ARJ21 – The Best Year Yet?

The ramp-up of the COMAC ARJ21 is continuing quickly as seven airlines use the domestic-only aircraft this year. Yet the ARJ21 still has just less than 1% of China’s domestic capacity, even though it’ll be operated on 107 routes.

Jiangxi Air is one of seven Chinese airlines using the ARJ21 this year. Photo: Getty Images

The first revenue-generating flight of the COMAC ARJ21 took off nearly five years ago on June 28th, 2016. It was operated by Chengdu Airlines, which now has 23 of the type, and routed from Chengdu to Shanghai Hongqiao.

With a second aircraft delivered to Chengdu Airlines in October 2016, permission wasn’t granted for COMAC to ramp-up production until July 2017. And it wasn’t until April 2020, nearly a year ago, that the first ARJ21 from the crucially important Shanghai Pudong’s assembly line was delivered to Chengdu Airlines, marking the start – coronavirus aside – of the ARJ21’s future.

Genghis Khan Airlines was the second airline user of the ARJ21 back in 2019. Photo: Getty Images

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ARJ21 ramp-up

And what a ramp-up this year will be, relatively speaking, building on multiple deliveries in 2020. This year, over 3.2 million seats are scheduled across seven airlines. Of course, the proportion of seats by the aircraft in domestic China is – as you’d expect – still extraordinarily low, at just 0.42%. But it’s growing.

The development of ARJ21, by scheduled seats since 2018, is shown below.

ARJ21 development
Seven airlines have scheduled ARJ21 seats this year. Source: OAG Schedules Analyzer.

Chengdu Airlines has about half of ARJ21 seats

Chengdu Airlines has 48% of ARJ21 seats this year, nearly three times as many as the second-largest operator, Jiangxi Air.

Chengdu Airlines is China’s 16th-largest domestic operator, ahead of West Air but behind Tianjin Airlines. It is only the fifth-largest airline in the city after which it gets its name, analysis of OAG data indicates.

While the ARJ21 is important to its operation, with 15% of its total capacity, it is just one of three types that it operates. The A320 is by far the most important, with 80%, although the ARJ21 is now three times more significant than the A319. AirFleets shows that Chengdu Airlines has 48% more A320s than ARJ71s (34 versus 23), yet this year the A320 will operate 173% more flights. The ARJ21 is being used less than expected.

Chengdu Airlines has 48% of all ARJ21 flights in 2021. Photo: Getty Images.

107 routes for the ARJ21

The ARJ21 is, of course, purely domestic, with 107 routes expected to see the type this year. The routes have an average distance of 474 miles, showing the regional role that the aircraft is designed for and plays. However, they stretch to 907 miles, the link between Chongqing (CKG in the map) and Pudong (PVG), and as short as 185 miles, from Chongqing to Bijie (BFJ).

ARJ21 route map
The ARJ21 is expected to operate 107 routes this year. Image: GCMap.

Beijing Capital the top airport

Despite what you might expect, Chengdu (CTU) is not the top airport for the ARJ71, at least in seat capacity terms. That honor goes to Beijing Capital (PEK), with over 30,000 more than second-placed Nanchang (KHN). Chengdu is 11th.

Air China is to use its ARJ21s on just six routes this year, all from Beijing Capital. Image: Getty Images.

While PEK has fewer ARJ21 routes than CTU, they’re thicker. Indeed, the top airport-pair is the 257-mile service from PEK to Hohhot (HET), followed by the 350-mile PEK to Baotou (BAV), both with over 100,000 seats. Yet of all airports, it is Nanchang that has the most routes, at 16.