Russia And China’s Plan To Compete Against Airbus And Boeing

Boeing and Airbus have enjoyed dominance in the large commercial aircraft for decades. Other manufacturers have been acquired or moved aside, as the duopoly has gathered strength. That may change in the coming years, however, with new aircraft being developed in China and Russia.

Aircraft, such as the new Chinese built C919, could take on Boeing and Airbus. Photo: Getty Images

State-backed manufacturers in each of the two countries are developing narrowbody alternatives to the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families. As well as this, they are coming together to jointly develop a widebody competitor.

So far, these aircraft are only proving popular in Russia and China. However, these are sizeable markets and, perhaps once the models are proven and established, other countries will pay more attention.

Boeing and Airbus

Boeing and Airbus have very different histories. Still, they have both come to lead the market through their own efforts and development, as well as mergers and takeovers of other manufacturers.

Boeing 747 and Airbus A380
The Boeing 747 and Airbus A380. Only these two companies have succeeded in building larger commercial aircraft so far. Photo: Getty Images

Boeing was one of the first aircraft manufacturers, started by William Boeing in 1916. It expanded first through military and airmail contracts, and later into passenger aircraft. Douglas was also a leading manufacturer at this time. Boeing led the way with jet aircraft development, launching the 707 in the mid-1950s (the first highly successful jet aircraft), then developing this further with the 7X7 series.

The Boeing 247 was one of its first passenger aircraft in the 1930s. Photo: SDASM Archives via Flickr

The 737 launched in 1967 and has been the best selling commercial aircraft to date (although now beaten by the Airbus A320 in numbers of orders). And the 747, entering service in 1970, set the standard for widebodies and changed aviation in many ways.

In 1997, Boeing merged with rival McDonnell Douglas to create the world’s largest aerospace company. Other manufacturers that started well in the early days have moved aside. Lockheed Corporation, for example (Lockheed Martin after its merger in 1995), developed several aircraft, including the  L-1011 TriStar in the 1960s, but left the commercial aircraft manufacturing business in 1983 and focused instead on defense and aerospace contracts.

Boeing Building
Following the merger, Boeing’s logo was altered to show part of the McDonnell Douglas logo. Photo: Boeing

Airbus has a very different history. It was formed in 1970, with several European manufacturers coming together to take on the dominant US planemakers. With cooperation and government backing, Airbus had the financing and manufacturing ability to build large jets.

Its first aircraft was the A300, designed to take on the Boeing jets. The launch of the A320 in 1987, though, was the move that secured Airbus’ dominant place in manufacturing, not just in Europe but with US airlines as well. It, of course, went on to develop widebodies and compete with Boeing in all markets. 

A330 and A340
Airbus took on Boeing in the widebody market with the A330 and A340. Photo: Getty Images

Rise of new competition

Boeing and Airbus have dominated the market since the 1970s, but there is competition. Part of the growth strategy of the two companies has been acquisition, and today, much of the competition has been bought out.

Other competition remains but crosses over with Boeing and Airbus only at the smallest end of their market. Embraer is one such example. Boeing attempted to absorb Embraer in 2019, but the deal fell through and it remains an independent manufacturer. It focuses on smaller aircraft and is unlikely to expand this to take on even the narrowbody end of the Boeing and Airbus products.

This is changing, though. New companies and developments from other countries have appeared in recent years. Most notably, from China and Russia. Both countries have developed a narrowbody aircraft that will compete with the popular Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families. When it comes to widebody aircraft, the two countries have joined forces to collaboratively develop a potential competitor.

We take a look now at each of these aircraft, what it offers, and how it may compete.

COMAC ARJ21 – a regional jet made in China

COMAC – a new Chinese manufacturer

China took a big step forward in the aircraft manufacturing business in 2008 with the formation of COMAC (the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China). COMAC is a state-owned company, incorporated in Shanghai. It brought together several smaller manufacturing and aeronautical companies across China, with a mission to manufacture large civilian jet aircraft.

Aircraft manufacturing is one of the Chinese government’s focus areas for development. The development of several industries and technologies are part of China’s “Five Year Plans” which set out proposed development strategies and initiatives.

COMAC factory
Hard at work in the COMAC factory. Photo: COMAC

The ARJ21 aircraft

The first aircraft developed by COMAC was the ARJ21. This is a smaller regional jet (ARJ stands for Advanced Regional Jet), with a capacity of around 90 (in one class configuration). The aircraft first flew in 2008 but did not enter service until 2016 with launch customer Chengdu Airlines.

It is powered with two rear-mounted General Electric CF34 engines. So far, only one variant has been delivered, the ARJ21-700. But there also a larger ARJ21-900 variant planned. This will stretch the fuselage by around three meters and increase passenger capacity from 90 to 105 (in a one class configuration).

Chengdu Airlines was the launch customer for the ARJ21 in 2016. Photo: Peng Chan via Wikimedia

Competing with other regional aircraft

With its smaller size, the ARJ21 is not a competitor so much for the A320 and 737 families. But it is very much in the same market as the A220 (formerly Bombardier CSeries) and Embraer aircraft such as the E190.

Simple Flying took a detailed look at how the ARJ21 compares with the Embraer E190-E2. Being around three meters longer, the E190-E2 has a higher capacity. It also wins on range (5,278 kilometers for Embraer compared with 3,700 kilometers for the extended range version of the ARJ21).

The ARJ21 is designed for the routes operated by domestic airlines, and that doesn’t necessarily match what international carriers may want.

Embraer E190-E2
The E190-E2 offers a similar specification to the ARJ21. Photo: Embraer

The ARJ21 comes out top on price. It has a list price of $38 million, compared with around $60 million for the E190-E2. It also has a wider cabin, making for a more comfortable ride (depending, of course, on the chosen configuration).

Orders and deliveries

According to COMAC, as of September 2020, 616 orders have been placed for the ARJ21 from 23 customers. Most orders have been from Chinese airlines. These started with many of the smaller, regional airlines in China. But by 2020, larger airlines started taking delivery.

In June 2020, the three largest Chinese airlines all took delivery of their first ARJ21 aircraft together. Air China, China Eastern, and China Southern announced simultaneous orders for 35 ARJ21 jets on August 30th. And each will take three aircraft by the end of 2020.

China carriers
The big three Chinese airlines took simultaneous deliveries of their first ARJ21s. Photo: Getty Images

China Southern and Air China will incorporate the aircraft into their fleets, operating domestic flights. And China Eastern has set up a new subsidiary, OTT Airlines, which will operate just the ARJ21 and the larger C919.

OTT ARJ21 China Eastern
China Eastern set up a new subsidiary to fly Chinese-made jets like the ARJ21. Photo: Getty Images

Not all orders and customers are certain, though. One of the largest orders so far has been to a Hong Kong-based leasing company. According to the South China Morning Post, it plans to lease 60 ARJ21 aircraft to an Indonesian airline, operating an all ARJ21 fleet. If this goes ahead, it would undoubtedly be a boost for the aircraft’s international presence and reputation.

Expanding to other international markets will be a challenge, but may happen later. The ARJ21 is certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), but not the Ameican FAA. Africa and Southeast Asia are the most likely target markets.

C919 – A Chinese built narrowbody

COMAC launched a narrowbody program in 2008 and started the development of the C919 in 2011. This was designed to take on Boeing and Airbus, with specifications similar to the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320.

The name (according to reporting by Chinese media Xinhua) carries meaning. The C refers (not surprisingly) to COMAC. The ‘9’ represents longevity in Chinese culture. It is pronounced ‘jiu’ which is the same pronunciation as the word for ‘everlasting’ (such wordplay is common in Chinese). The ’19’ refers to its maximum capacity of 190.

Comac C919 OTT Airlines
The C919 is completing test flights in 2020. Photo: Getty Images

Delays in launch

The aircraft first flew in 2015 but has not yet been delivered to airlines. Six test aircraft have been built, and test flights are well underway. The first delivery is expected in 2021, with China Eastern Airlines lined up as the launch customer.

There have been delays in development, with the C919 (as of 2020) running around five years behind schedule. There have been several technical problems emerging from its test flights. Most serious have been delays with the aircraft engines.

COMAC has been slow to communicate the correct details for these with preferred suppliers General Electric and Safran. And in early 2020, the US government considered blocking the deal and preventing General Electric from supplying engines. This was resolved in April 2020, and the C919 will use GE LEAP-1C engines.

Comac C919
The CFM LEAP-1C engine is a joint venture between GE and Safran. Photo: Getty Images

The aircraft

The C919 will offer a typical capacity of 168 (in a single class configuration, but with a maximum limit of 190), with a range of 4,075 kilometers. There will also be an extended range version that increases this to 5,555 kilometers. As yet, no larger or smaller variants are planned.

Engines have been confirmed as General Electric LEAP-1C engines, the same as used by the A320neo and all 737 MAX aircraft.

Comparison with the 737 and the A320

The C919 was designed to compete with the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families. How does it stack up against these aircraft? We take a look here at some of the main specifications across the three aircraft. For simplicity, we will compare it against the 737-800 (the most sold 737 variant) and the newer A320neo.

C919 737-800 A320neo
Passenger capacity (typical one class) 168 160 195
Length 38.9 m 39.50 m 37.57 m
Weight 42.1 t 41.4 t 44.3 t
Range 4,075 km 5,436 km 6,500 km
Engines CFM International LEAP-1C CFM56-7 series CFM International LEAP-1A or Pratt & Whitney PW1100G

The C919 is designed with a capacity of around 158-168. Both the 737 and A320 families have several options catering to different passenger capacities, and both offer larger capacities than the C919. This will be a limitation for many airlines. Having commonality across a fleet of different sized aircraft is a big advantage for Boeing and Airbus. This may, of course, change in the future, and COMAC may start to offer different sized variants.

The range is certainly a limitation of the C919 – both the 737 and A320 offer significant improvements. An extended range version of the C919 is planned, but this will still fall short. As they use the same engines, the differences come down more to design choices and fuel capacity. This may not be a limitation for many Chinese domestic routes (where COMAC is targeting the product) but will be more of a concern for international airlines’ flexibility in operations.

It is hard to compare the aircraft on price, as we usually would. Sales of the C919 to date have been to Chinese airlines and leasing companies, and details are hard to obtain. Although, analysis by CNET quotes the price at around $50 million, which is about half the price of Boeing and Airbus equivalents.

Orders to date

The C919 is still up to a year away from entering service but has already sold well. According to COMAC, it has (as of September 2020) received 815 orders (and options) from 28 airlines. It is believed these are all Chinese airlines, with just one order from leasing company GE Capital (for 10 aircraft with 10 further options).

COMAC, C919, First Flight
The COMAC C919 will fly initially will Chinese airlines. Photo: Getty Images

As with the ARJ21, the three largest airlines Air China, China Eastern, and China Southern, have made the same initial order (for five aircraft with 15 more options). Other Chinese airline customers include Hainan Airlines, Sichuan Airlines, Joy Air, and Hebei Airlines. Many others will operate it via Chinese leasing companies.

Irkut MC-21 – Russia’s narrowbody option

The Chinese C919 is not the only upcoming competitor to the 737 and A320. Russian manufacturer Irkut, with parent company United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), is developing a similar specification narrowbody – the MC-21.

Irkut has a long history of aircraft construction. The company was founded in 1932, and produced bombers during the Second World War. Since then, it has focussed on transport and civilian aircraft. In 2006, it merged with other Russian aerospace companies Ilyushin, Mikoyan, Sukhoi, Tupolev, and Yakovlev, to form UAC.

The design of the MC-21 began in 2006 (based partly on an earlier aircraft, the three engine Yakovlev Yak 42). The development has been delayed due to sanctions from the US, meaning some materials needed to be re-sourced from Russia or China. The first aircraft flew in May 2017, and is currently in testing, with four aircraft built. Delivery is expected to start in 2021.

The Irkut MC-21. Photo: Getty Images

The aircraft

There are two variants of the MC-21:

  • MC-21-300. This has a range of up to 6,000 km and a capacity of between 163 and 211 seats. This variant will launch first.
  • MC-21-200. This is a shortened version with a range of up to 6,400 km and a capacity of between 132 and 165 passengers.

There will be two options for engines. In 2009, Irkut selected Pratt & Whitney PW1000G engines. These are also used on the Airbus A220 and Embraer E-jets. In addition, Russian manufacturer United Engine Corporation has developed the Aviadvigatel PD-14 engine specifically for the MC-21.

MC-21 medium-range twinjet airliner
The higher capacity MC-21-300 will be the first variant developed. Photo: Getty Images

Comparison with the 737 and the A320

Like the C919, the MC-21 is designed to compete with the Boeing 737 and A320neo. The following is a comparison of the main specifications (this time considering both the 737-800 and the 737 MAX 8):

  MC-21-200 MC-21-300 737-800 737 MAX 8 A320neo
Passenger capacity (typical one class) 165 211 160 200 195
Length 36.8 m 42.2 m 39.50  m 39.47 m 37.57 m
Range 6,000 km 6,400 km 5,436 km 6,570 km 6,500 km
Engines PW1000G / PD-14 PW1000G / PD-14  CFM56-7 series CFM LEAP-1B  CFM International LEAP-1A or Pratt & Whitney PW1100G

The MC-21 compares well against both the 737 MAX and the A320neo. The higher capacity MC-21-300 matches the capacity of the A320neo and 737 MAX 8. It also offers a smaller variant, with capacity more in the range of the COMAC C919 and the smaller 737 and A320neo variants. But it still falls short of the high capacity variants that Boeing and Airbus offer (the 737 MAX 10 and A321neo).

As for range, the MC-21 offers much more than the C919. It falls slightly short of the MAX and A320neo, but would still allow transcontinental US flights if airlines were interested.

But the real test will come with efficiency and performance. It is too early to tell for either the C919 or the MC-21, especially with the newly developed engine option for the MC-21. But some early analysis by Research and Markets shows that the MC-21 may have superior seat-mile economics to the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and Airbus A320neo.

Orders to date

As of July 2018, there were 175 firm orders and options from 15 operators. The majority of the orders so far have been from Russian airlines. The largest order is from Aeroflot, for 50 -300 aircraft. There is a confirmed order from Azerbaijan Airlines for 10 -300 aircraft. Letters of intent for possible future orders were signed by Peruvian Airlines and Merpati Nusantara Airlines, but both airlines have since ceased operations.

Aeroflot will be the largest operator of the Irkut MC-21. Photo: Getty Images

Following delays in development, UAC now plans delivery of the first aircraft in 2021 and another 12 in 2022. Production will then increase to 25 units a year by 2023, and then 72 units by 2025.

CRAIC CR 929 – widebody competition

Developing a widebody aircraft is more complicated and more expensive. To date, we have not seen anything rival Boeing or Airbus, although there have been attempts. McDonnell Douglas, for example, (before its merger with Boeing) had plans for a twin-deck aircraft to compete with the 747, and later the A380.

McDonnell Douglas designed the MD-12 long before the A380 was launched, but it was never built. Photo: Anynobody via Wikimedia

Russia and China coming together

To develop a widebody competitor, the two companies working on narrowbodies are joining forces. COMAC and UAT established a joint venture in 2012, known as China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation (CRAIC). COMAC had already been working on plans for a widebody C929 aircraft, and this went forward with CRAIC as the CR929.

The original target for development was 2019, but this has been delayed. CRAIC plans to start construction in 2021 and make the first aircraft delivery in 2025. This could be further delayed, though, with 2027 a more likely target.

The CR929 will be a widebody competitor to Boeing and Airbus. Photo: Getty Images

The aircraft

The initial version of the CR929 will have a typical three-cabin capacity of between 261 and 291, and a range of 12,000 kilometers. This could be over 400 if a single cabin design is used.

There are also two other variants planned later:

  • A smaller variant will have a typical three-cabin capacity of 250 with a range of 14,000 km.
  • A larger variant will have a typical three-cabin capacity of 320 with a range of 10,000 km.

The development will be a joint effort between the two countries.  Russia is building the wings of the aircraft, and China is building the fuselage. Some of the design, including the cockpit, will be shared with the narrowbody COMAC C919.

The C919 and CR929 will share a similar cockpit (this is the C919 cockpit). Photo: Getty Images

Engines will be developed in a joint project between the two countries. China’s Avic Commercial Aircraft Engines and Russia’s United Engine Corporation (UEC)  announced in 2014 that they would work on a new design for the CR929.

The decision to not use General Electric or Rolls-Royce engines has been a primary factor in delays to the development so far, and it remains uncertain in late 2020.

Competing with the Boeing 787 and Airbus A330 and A350

As a newly designed and efficient, widebody, the CR929 will compete against the Boeing 787 and A350. But in specification, it is also very close to the A330neo. It falls short of the capacity of the new 777X, and of course, is smaller than the 747 and A380.

We compare the CR929 against its rival in the table below. Of course, all of these aircraft have several variants, and for simplicity, we compare the mid-sized of each.

CR 929 A350-900 A330neo  (A330-900) 787-9
Passenger capacity (typical) 261-291 315 287 290
Length 63.76 m 66.8 m 63.66 m 62.81 m
Range 12,000 km 15,000 km 13,334 km 14,140 km
Engines Avic / UEC Rolls-Royce Trent XWB Rolls-Royce Trent 7000 GEnx or Rolls-Royce Trent 1000

For more specifications of the 787 and the A350, see our comparison guide for the two aircraft.

For capacity, the CR929 will compare very closely with the 787 and the A330, though it will be smaller than the A350 or 777X. CRAIC also plans to offer a family of different sized variants that will undoubtedly appeal to airlines.

For range, it is expected to fall slightly short of the competitors (as the narrowbody aircraft do as well), but this may change as engines are developed.

Orders will come later

It is too early to have firm orders for the CR929. These are not expected until after the flight test begins. This is impressive confidence from the manufacturers and governments. And it is not something that happened in the early days of widebody development. Boeing, for example, relied on strong collaboration and orders from launch airline Pan Am for the 707 and the 747 development.

CR929 economy
A mock-up of the CR929 economy cabin, construction is yet to begin. Photo: Getty Images

Like the COMAC and Irkut narrowbody aircraft, the initial orders will likely come from Chinese and Russian airlines and leasing companies. The expectations for first orders are discussed in some interesting reporting by Russian Aviator Insider. It reports Oleg Bocharov, Russia’s deputy minister of industry and trade, view that:

“State-controlled Aeroflot, Russia’s largest airline, along with China’s state-owned carriers, could be the first CR929 customers.”

Will the competition succeed?

The moves by Russia and China to develop new aircraft is no surprise. Demand for new aircraft is set to increase significantly, largely due to growth in new markets. The coronavirus pandemic may delay this, but in the long term will likely get back on track.

Boeing, for example, predicts widebody market demand will increase substantially over the next few decades to a figure of 7690 aircraft worth $1.2 trillion.

Despite the slow start, CRAIC has strong ambitions for the CR929. It has set a goal of securing 10% of the market for widebody aircraft, estimated to be some 9,100 widebodies, over the next 20 years.

The CR929 may not fly until 2028, but CRAIC hopes to secure 10% of the market. Photo: Getty Images

Grabbing the Chinese and Russian market

So far, almost all sales of COMACs aircraft have been to Chinese airlines, and likewise for the Irkut MC-21 with Russian airlines. As a starting point for any manufacturer, China is far from a bad choice. It is the largest market globally for new aircraft and set to grow further. According to IATA, China was the second-largest aviation market in 2019.

Boeing has, for example, already delivered over 2,000 aircraft to Chinese airlines. COMAC has already sold ARJ21 and C919 aircraft to many regional and large Chinese airlines. And with government support, this will surely increase. Just selling in China alone, these aircraft could be very successful.

Air China 747
China is a major market for Boeing. Photo: Bill Abbott via Wikimedia

Selling internationally

Sales of alternative aircraft in the large Russian and Chinese market could hurt Boeing and Airbus hard. But to truly succeed as a competitor to Boeing and Airbus, then international interest and sales need to increase.

With orders so far from Chinese and Russian airlines, it is hard to tell how this will develop. If these orders stick and things go well with the initial aircraft, perhaps more airlines will be interested, especially if the price offered undercuts Boeing and Airbus.

The CR929 will need to be a decent proposition to tempt airlines away from Boeing and Airbus. Photo: Getty Images

The most likely customers would be airlines in nearby South East Asia or Africa. China already has strong trading relationships with many of these companies, and aircraft sales could build on this. Price could also be a big influencer. There is a high demand for second-hand aircraft in African (and some South American) markets, and a lower-priced new aircraft could be appealing here.

But moving forward 20 to 30 years, things could have changed significantly. There was a time when Boeing was unaware of the competition that would emerge through Airbus. These changes from Russia and China are certainly the most likely option to shake up Boeing and Airbus’ duopoly, but not in the immediate future.

What do you think about China and Russia’s plans to develop larger aircraft? Will we see sales expand beyond the two countries, and how long will it take? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.