Meet Comac ARJ21: China’s first jet-propelled regional airliner.

The People’s Republic of China has a robust domestic aviation market. Over the last few decades, its air transportation passenger volume has increased rapidly due to expanding middle class and rising urbanization. In light of this, state-owned Chinese companies like Comac are greasing the wheels to usher domestic commercial aircraft into the market. Comac ARJ21 Xianfeng is a Chinese-made regional jet designed to cater to growing regional air transport within the country. China’s first jet-propelled regional airliner entered commercial service with Chengdu Airlines on June 28, 2016. ARJ21 (Advanced Regional Jet) is tailored for short to medium-haul routes and competes on a 78 to 90-seating market.

The motive for ARJ21 development

The Chinese aerospace company Comac feverishly developed ARJ21 to capture a share of the domestic aviation market. Comac sought to enhance China’s strategic independence and self-sufficiency in the aviation sector by offering a domestically produced regional jet. Through AR21 development, it wanted to

  • Nurture China’s domestic aviation industry
  • Establish Chinese leadership in regional travel
  • Compete with Western regional jet manufacturers

ARJ21historical timeline

The development of a new-type feeder jet ARJ21 started in 2002 under the leadership of the state-owned ACAC consortium. ARJ21 development was a crucial project in the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) issued by the Chinese Communist Party. The plan set out the task of kick-starting the operations of more infrastructure facilities, including air transport. So, the design work on the ARJ21 feeder jet commenced in March 2002 with a plan to conduct its maiden flight in 2005. The self-developed jet was targeted at entry-into-commercial service 18 months later.

However, the highly-touted ARJ21 project encountered several setbacks, which pushed the maiden trip date a few years back. China’s first independently developed passenger jet entered the final trial production stage in 2006 and was fully assembled by the next year. The prototype (dubbed Flying Phoenix) rolled off the production line on December 21, 2007, and took its first flight on November 28, 2008.

After a series of flight tests in the following years, the ARJ21 finally received its Type Certification on December 30, 2014. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) granted the mass-production certification to Comac after the ARJ21-700 completed 5,000 flight hours.

The ARJ21 turbofan aircraft made its final demonstration flight in September 2015 and went for delivery to the launch customer in November 2015. Shuanguliu-headquartered Chengdu Airlines received the first ARJ21-700 and deployed it on commercial service on June 28, 2016. The Chinese-built ARJ21 regional jet made a commercial entry with its first commercial flight from Chengdu Shuangliu to Shanghai.

This way, the country’s first self-developed civil aviation program became nearly nine years behind its original schedule.

Comac ARJ21- Design

China’s first homegrown commercial jet, ARJ-21 is a 78-90 seat regional jet suited for short to medium-haul operationsAlthough being acclaimed as a completely indigenous design; the ARJ21 is identical to McDonnell Douglas MD-80/MD-90 narrowbody jetliner.

The ARJ21’s reliance on foreign firms for technology and components procurement reflects that China still lags behind the West in technology, esp. in engines and avionics domains. The turbofan aircraft features engines and avionics of General Electric and Rockwell Collins, respectively, which are US-based. Similarly, Ukraine’s Antonov Design Bureau designs ARJ21’s 25-degree swept, supercritical wing.

ARJ21 is a consolidated regional jet with major components manufactured by various domestic and international companies. The credit for constructing the jet’s nose goes to Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group. Likewise, Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Company receives the credit for manufacturing ARJ21’s wings and fuselage. The regional airliner’s empennage was made by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, and Shanghai Aircraft Company carried out its final assembly.

ARJ21 specifications

2 General Electric CF34-10A engines power Comac ARJ21 and can cruise at Mach 0.78. The Chinese-built aircraft can reach maximum speeds of up to Mach 0.82 (870km/hr; 470kn; 541mph). The ARJ-21 jet can fly as far as 1,200 mi (2200km), which is ideal for short-haul routes. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 40,500kg and a maximum fuel loading capacity of 10,396kg.

ARJ21 variants

Comac ARJ21 passenger jet is available in two variants, i.e., ARJ21-700 and ARJ21-900.

ARJ21-700 is a baseline model having a total length of 33.46 meters (109 feet 9 inches) and a height of 8.44 meters (27 feet 8 inches). A typical dual-class configuration on ARJ21-700 can seat 78 passengers, whereas the single-class layout can accommodate 90 passengers.

ARJ21-700 is a stretched version of ARJ21-700 and stands 36.35m (119 feet 3 inches) long. The slight fuselage stretch allows it to carry 105 passengers in a single-class setup and 98 passengers in a dual-class setup. Because it is powered by the same engine type used in the baseline model, there is no range and cruise speed difference. But, the maximum takeoff weight is slightly higher at 43,616kgs (96,157lb).

ARJ21 operators

China-based airlines are top contenders for the jet-propelled ARJ21 regional airliner. The launch customer Chengdu Airlines is the largest operator, with over 30 deliveries. The carrier uses ARJ21 jets on domestic routes like Mohe-Jiagedaqi, Mohe-Harbin, etc. Recently, the carrier undertook commercial operations in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region using Chinese-made ARJ21jets. The carrier’s ARJ21 aircraft will serve five cities in the country’s northwestern board province: Aral, Korla, Yining, Hotan, and Shihezi.

Other notable ARJ21 operators include:

  • Air China (18 in service, 17 on order)
  • China Southern Airlines (18 in service, 17 on order)
  • OTT Airlines (17 in service, 18 on order)
  • China Express Airlines (5 in service, 45 on order)

On June 28, 2020, Comac hit a milestone with the historical delivery of three ARJ21s to the ‘Big Three’ mainland Chinese carriers. June 28 is the exact date when the first ARJ21 (B-3321) began its commercial life.

The Chinese aerospace giant delivered one Comac ARJ21 each to Air China, China Southern Airlines, and China Eastern Airlines on that special day. The event marked the breakthrough for the type as the jet wedged into the fleet of China’s biggest airlines.

Also Read: China’s first big jetliner COMAC C919 to fly for first time tomorrow

Of 35 ARJ21-700 orders each by the ‘Big Three,’ Air China and China Southern Airlines have already received 18 examples (each). Shanghai-headquartered China Eastern Airlines hasn’t yet taken the delivery of any ARJ-700s. Comac will start delivering the jet-powered regional airliner to China Eastern in 2025.

TransNusa-the first non-Chinese ARJ21 operator

Comac Advanced Regional Jet ARJ21 has finally found favor outside China. Indonesia-based TransNusa became the first non-Chinese ARJ21 operator by inaugurating a scheduled ARJ21 flight from Jakarta to Bali on April 18, 2023.

The PK-TJA registered aircraft, performing flight 8B 5112, took off from Jakarta (CGK) at 13:13 and arrived in Denpasar (DPS) at 15:42. The return flight left Denpasar at 21:00 and arrived in Jakarta after 1 hour and 31 minutes at 21:31 local time. TranSuna will utilize the indigenous jet to serve its popular Jakarta-Bali segment daily.

Comac made the first overseas delivery of Chinese homegrown regional ARJ21 aircraft to an Indonesian regional carrier on December 18, 2022. With the historical delivery, Comac ARJ21 officially ushered in international markets.

Comac ARJ21 sales figure

As of June 2023, the Chinese state-run aerospace manufacturer Comac has built at least 111 examples of the ARJ21 jet. It has more than 300 outstanding orders, mainly from China-based carriers like Xiamen Airlines, Joy Air, YTO Cargo Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, etc.

Outside China, Comac has reportedly received ARJ21 orders from Merukh Enterprises (Indonesia), the Republic of Congo (Congo), and GECAS (the US).

The lack of FAA or EASA certification makes the indigenous ARJ21 jet a tough sell in the overseas market. Since the scope of international sales is limited, Comac can entice Chinese carriers and airlines in neighboring countries to purchase the jets.

ARJ21-Propelling Chinese aviation well into future

ARJ21 demonstrates China’s technological prowess and long-standing effort to compete with well-established players in the regional jet sector. While the ARJ21 lags behind its Western counterparts in technological advances, it serves as a pathfinder for homegrown civil jets. It is a learning experience for China, delivering valuable lessons to Comac to manufacture much larger C919 jets. The Chinese-made regional passenger jet is a stepping stone for the nation’s aerospace industry and represents an adventurous step forward in Chinese aviation. The ARJ21 supports the country’s ambition to reduce its dependence on foreign suppliers and become a key player in the global airplane manufacturing market.

About Comac

The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) is a Chinese state-owned enterprise specializing in designing and constructing large passenger aircraft. Established on May 11, 2008, the aerospace company maintains its headquarters in Pudong, Shanghai. Comac has produced two types of commercial airliners, i.e., ARJ21 and C919.

The C919 is a twin-engine, single-aisle aircraft that entered commercial passenger service with China Eastern Airlines on May 28, 2023. The aircraft is China’s attempt to establish a domestic presence in the aviation industry and disrupt the Airbus-Boeing duopoly.

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