By Lei Yan
COMAC ARJ21: Opening China’s Regional Network?
For many aviation enthusiasts outside of China, the COMAC ARJ21 is not an aircraft that they are often familiar with. The “Advanced Regional Jets of the 21st Century” was only operated by Chinese carriers as of this moment. Since the certification of COMAC ARJ in 2014 and its first flight in 2016, a total of 79 aircraft have been delivered to carriers. Before ARJ21 went into service, many people looked pessimistically at the future of this jet. However, this jet may have stimulated the long-ignored regional jet market of China, and paved the way for the larger COMAC C919 that will finally deliver by the end of 2022.
The design of COMAC ARJ21 resembles the design of the MD-80 series. The jet can carry 90 people and fly 2,200KM. Such capacity and range can fit into a sizable regional market globally, however, the operational efficiency and economic performance of ARJ21 are still slightly short of its competitors, such as Embraer’s E-series jets.
Since 2016, COMAC ARJ21’s operation has been quite limited, and the aircraft’s average daily usage was below par. Chengdu Airlines, an airline that is partially owned by COMAC, was the sole operator of the jet and has only operated ARJ21 in a handful of airports. COMAC took the feedback and experience of operating ARJ21 and installed improvements on its products.
In 2019, the opportunity finally came for COMAC ARJ21. The big three airlines, Air China, China Southern, and China Eastern, each ordered 35 ARJ21. Those carriers have little experience operating regional aircraft or managing regional networks. Many speculated that those orders were political tasks, which was very likely, considering all three airlines are state-owned.
Previously, regional flights in China are mainly operated by regional airlines with relatively small networks. Those airlines do not have a lot of opportunities to gather regional passengers to a hub and connect them further. Route planning tends to tilt towards the airport which offers a higher subsidy. China still has a large portion of the population that has no access to air transportation, and the lack of a regional network is one of the factors causing the situation.
In May 2020, COMAC ARJ21s were delivered to Air China, China Southern, and OTT Airlines (a subsidiary of China Eastern) on the same day. Air China positioned its ARJ21s in Hohhot, China, mainly eying on the vast regional market of Inner Mongolia; China Southern used its ARJ21s operating regional flights in the Guangdong area, aiming to solidify its market share in Southern China; China Easter used its ARJ21 for some low-throughput routes, and increased frequency to improve passenger satisfaction.
Outside of everybody’s expectations, the ARJ21 was a perfect complement to the big three airlines all mainline aircraft fleet. Especially during the COVID-19 period, ARJ21 is enough to support the reduced traffics, and maintain air connections between cities. The advantage of a big airline is that they have an extensive network, and ARJ21 did not only thrive in such a network but also unveiled new opportunities for those carriers.
Last month, COMAC C919 was certified by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, marking the milestone for COMAC to deliver its first mid-sized mainline aircraft. The experience from ARJ21 certification and operation surely contributed to the certification process for C919.
COMAC ARJ21 may have been a political task for Chinese carriers, but it demonstrated the potential and robustness of regional flight markets, drawing major players into the field. The operational experience from ARJ21 gives the Chinese a path to develop even bigger aircraft. As the Chinese regional markets expand, it is foreseeable that foreign players, such as Airbus’ A220 and the Embraer E175, will also have a chance to compete in this market.