China’s COMAC has a lot to look forward to in terms of its well-publicized upcoming designs. These are the C919 and CR929, the latter of which is a joint venture with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC). However, the company has also already produced a regional jet that has now been in service for five years. This is the story of the COMAC ARJ21.
Over a decade in the making
COMAC (the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China) worked on the ARJ21 for more than 14 years before it finally entered commercial service. The story began in March 2002, when the AVIC I Commercial Aircraft Company began developing a new regional jet.
The company worked with short timescales, and the planned first flight was in 2005. Had the group reached this goal, entry into service was touted for 2006. However, the project quickly fell behind schedule, and it was December 2007 before the first complete prototype was rolled out. It made its maiden test flight 11 months later, in November 2009.
By 2009, the AVIC I Commercial Aircraft Company had become part of COMAC. However, it would be nearly seven years before the aircraft reached the milestone of its first revenue-earning flight. November 2015 finally saw COMAC deliver the first ARJ21 to Chengdu Airlines. This mainly domestic operator eventually introduced the type in June 2016.
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Performance and specifications
While COMAC has planned several variants of the ARJ21, the only one to be produced thus far is the standard ARJ21-700. This baseline version can seat 78 passengers across two classes, or 90 in an all-economy setup. It is 33.46 meters long, which, in terms of other active rear-engined regional jets, is most comparable to the Bombardier CRJ700.
That being said, its five-abreast seating configuration is more reminiscent of the McDonell Douglas MD-80 and MD-90 families. Interestingly enough, both of these aircraft were also produced under license in the COMAC ARJ21’s Chinese homeland.
Meanwhile, the ARJ21’s wings stretch across a span of 27.28 meters, with an area of 79.86 square meters. They are swept back at an angle of 25 degrees. Two General Electric CF34 turbofans, also found on several other regional jets, power the ARJ21.
But how does the ARJ21 stack up in terms of raw performance figures? The jet has a typical cruise speed of 828 km/h (447 knots), although it can fly as fast as 870 km/h (470 knots). In terms of range, the standard ARJ-700 can fly for up to 2,200 km (1,200 NM).
Other proposed variants include a stretched (36.35 meters) ARJ21-900, which would be able to seat 105 economy class passengers, or 98 across two classes. To cater for cargo and corporate/private markets, COMAC has planned the ARJ21F and ARJ21B respectively. The latter of these would be a 20-seat business jet version of the ARJ21-700.
Who flies the ARJ21?
As we have established, Chengdu Airlines was the launch customer for the COMAC ARJ21 back in 2016. This regional subsidiary of Sichuan Airlines is also the largest operator of the type, with 27 in its fleet (and three on order) according to data from ch-aviation.com.
There is then a big gap down to the next-largest operator of the type. As it happens, four different airlines jointly share the second spot, each operating five ARJ21s. These are Air China, Genghis Khan Airlines, Jiangxi Air, and OTT Airlines. Of these carriers, Jiangxi Air is the only operator not to have any further ARJ21s on order.
Meanwhile, China Express Airlines and China Southern Airlines each have three ARJ21s in their fleet, as per ch-aviation’s data. The former of these has the largest outstanding order for the type, with 97 aircraft from its 100-plane order yet to be delivered. COMAC itself also has three ARJ21s, and China Flight General Aviation Company has two.
Across all airlines, COMAC has a total of 400 outstanding orders for its ARJ21. While most of these correspond to existing customers, there is one carrier yet to receive any. This is Shijiazhuang-based Xiamen Air subsidiary Hebei Airlines, which is set to receive 10. Overall, such a full order book will be a welcome sight that keeps COMAC busy.
An increasingly common sight
2021 has been a good year for the COMAC ARJ21. It kicked off with the news that the company achieved record ARJ21 deliveries in 2020 despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, as Simple Flying reported this January. Following on from this good news, the aircraft is set to have its busiest year yet, as we explored earlier in March this year.
The ARJ21 still has a long way to go in generating China’s domestic sector, as it only holds a 1% market share there. However, the headline of our analysis was that its various operators would fly it on an impressive 107 internal Chinese routes over the course of 2021.
Of the 3.2 million scheduled ARJ21 seats this year, primary operator Chengdu Airlines unsurprisingly offers the most. Overall, it will have just under half of these, with its share totaling around 48%. This outranks Jiangxi Air in second place by almost 300%.
A particularly interesting aspect that Simple Flying’s analysis picked up on was the fact that Chengdu Airlines is actually using its ARJ21s less than expected. Specifically, the carrier has 48% more Airbus A320s in its fleet than ARJ21s, but these European twinjets will operate 173% more flights. It will be interesting to see how this figure develops going forward.
Overall, the COMAC ARJ21 looks set to be a fascinating addition to the Chinese domestic market. While its market share remains low, this will only grow as the company delivers its 400 outstanding orders for the type. Whether it will succeed internationally is a different matter, but it will certainly be fascinating to see if or how it tries to do so.
What do you make of the COMAC ARJ21? Have you ever flown on one of these Chinese regional jets? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!