MIAMI — Earlier this week Chinese aircraft manufacturer COMAC received twenty more orders for its new C919 aircraft. However, despite 400 orders, the narrow-body airliner, which aims to compete with the Airbus A319/20 and Boeing’s 737, has seriously struggled to attract buyers outside of China. It has also struggled just to get off the ground.

The latest order came from [another] Chinese leasing company, Industrial Bank Financial Leasing. The order joins several other Chinese leasing companies who’ve signed up for orders of the homegrown airplane. Joining the leasing companies, several airlines, again all Chinese, have also ordered the airplane, including Air China, China Eastern, and Hainan Airlines. The only non-Chinese order comes from GE Capital Aviation Services for twenty airplanes. As Scott Hamilton of Leeham New and Comment, notes, only 275 of the 400 claimed orders are currently firm, further complicating the order problem.

The C919 ultimately intends to disrupt the current duopoly between aerospace giants Airbus and Boeing, who’ve enjoyed a firm grip on the mid-capacity, mid-range aircraft market for decades. And like other aircraft from competing companies such as Russian manufacturers Ilyushin and Tupolev that have tried to break the lock over the years, the C919 has struggled to attract interest outside of its home country. Though the way the program has been progressing, it is not terribly surprising.

The new flagship airplane of the company was announced in 2008, and intended to enter into service in 2016. Yet at the moment, the planned 168-seat aircraft is still only theoretical, with first assembly only recently getting underway according to the company. Unspecified problems have caused the company to announce that the airplane’s first flight will be pushed back from 2014 into 2015. Compounding the problem, the program was not built with any significant tolerance for error, fueling charges from critics that the program is trying to move too far, too fast. Given that experienced companies such as Boeing can still get bogged down for years rolling out a new type (787 anyone?), fresh delays from COMAC down the road seem likely.

If COMAC’s other project, the ARJ21 Xiangfeng, is any guide the C919 may still be long in coming. The ARJ21 project began in 2002 and was part of the Chinese government’s 10th Five-Year Plan. The jet, which is comparable in size to the American made DC-9, was the company’s first. Despite intentions for the airplane to make its first flight in 2006, it didn’t wind up taking to the skies until late 2008. A lengthy two year initial flight test program wound up uncovering a big problem in late 2010 when the wing failed a crucial stress test. Additional problems began cropping up not long after which have set back the delivery date of the airplane into 2014; specifically cracking in the wings and wiring in the avionics.

Yet despite the setbacks, both have attracted significant support from credible industry partners. The C919 incorporates parts and systems from GE, Honeywell, and Rockwell Collins (as does the ARJ21), plus enjoys substantial technical collaboration with Bombardier. In fact, the C919 and Bombardier’s CSeries are set to have a number of features in common, most notably the cockpit. It is also set to offer the CFM Leap-X and the Pratt & Whitney PW1000G Geared Turbofan, both of which are offered on the Airbus A320NEO program.

The added credibility from tried and true manufacturing/parts partners, combined with a price point designed to undercut both the A320 and the 737, ought to boost sales prospects outside of China once the airplanes take flight. Budget-minded low-cost carriers like Ryanair, which has expressed interest in the C919, seem poised to be the most likely non-Chinese customers. But first, the airplane has to fly.

Cover image: A C919 mockup at the Paris Air Show. Image by Bertrand Duperrin via Creative Commons.