Every time I fly over the North Pole from Chicago to Beijing—in a little over 12 hours—I renew my respect for earlier Western scholars of China who had a much more difficult journey. I knew Professor Derk Bodde in his last few years after retirement. He had been the first recipient of a Fulbright award shortly after World War II. Traveling with his young family, it took most of a month to get to China on a ship that broke down halfway across the Pacific.
Even in 1975, when I flew with my family to teach in Hong Kong, it took nearly two days, with refueling layovers in Hawaii and Guam. Times have changed.
With the “opening up” of China under Deng Xiao-ping, China’s growing middle class increased the demand for internal airlines. An airline company was formed in nearly every province. Each would hub out of its provincial capitol, while Air China was the national airline.
There were three decades of intense competition. Today, a few Chinese airline companies have risen to become the major carriers. Those include China Eastern (Shanghai) and China Southern (Guangzhou/Canton). Shenzhen, a special region begun as a sweatshop community just across the border from Hong Kong, evolved into a model modern city and has major airline routes across China. Most unexpectedly, an airline from the island province of Hainan arose to become not only an internal carrier, but also flies international routes, including from China to Seattle, Washington. It occupies the older of the three terminal buildings at Beijing Capitol International Airport. This competition among airline companies is just one example of how good and bad management shakes out in China.
In one aspect, competition went a little too far. In 1998, you still bought plane tickets through travel agents and had to confirm your return flight several days beforehand. In China that year, the different travel agencies had made exclusive marketing arrangements with different airlines, and it was troublesome wandering around Beijing to find the right travel agent to confirm your flight. Public complaints soon ended that hyper-capitalism. A few years later, booking and confirmations were all online.
Today, regardless of the Chinese airline company, I still fly on Boeing or Airbus aircraft. That will soon change. Last November, at the university in China where I was teaching, I was eating my lunch in the Foreign Guest House and watching the noon news. Local networks broadcast the maiden flight of the C-919, China’s first passenger jet designed and built in China.
The C-919 is built by COMAC (the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd.) in state-of-the-art factories in the modern Pudong District of Shanghai. The C-919 is a 168-seat narrow-body jet that resembles a mid-size Airbus.
Historically, the United States and Europe were about the only manufacturers of passenger jet planes. Then Canadian Bombardier (now allied with Airbus) and Brazil’s Embraer broke into the market with smaller regional jets. But China’s home-built C-919 will soon compete with both Boeing and Airbus for medium range air travel, having a range of 2,500 miles. This is about equivalent to the Boeing 737 or Airbus 320 but is estimated to cost 30 percent less than those models. According to the COMAC news release, 21 companies in China and abroad have already placed orders for over 500 new C-919s. Commercial production will begin after the completion of additional test flights.
Just as Boeing and Airbus contract parts from outside companies, the C-919 engines are bought from CFM International, a joint venture between the French company Safran and the U.S. General Electric.
The C-919 will not replace the long-range jetliners, such as the Boeing 777 that makes 8-to-13 hour flights between continents. But China will soon be building the C-929, a bigger wide-body plane that will enter the future market for large civilian jetliners. Engines for that model will likely be China-made.
If China’s current growth in customers continues, China will have the most citizens traveling by air by 2025 of any country. China anticipates needing over 32,000 freight and passenger jets by 2035. And they are unlikely to be built by Boeing or Airbus.