China Express Signs Preliminary Deal For 50-80 COMAC ARJ21s

Credit: COMAC

BEIJING—China Express Airlines has signed a preliminary agreement to buy 50-80 COMAC ARJ21 regional jets, an industry source said.

The agreement envisages the first five aircraft being delivered this year, said the source, who is close to the transaction. But the actual timing of deliveries for the whole order will depend on COMAC’s production capacity, that person said.

China Express has 38 CRJ-900s in service, according to Aviation Week Intelligence Network Fleet Data, which were delivered between 2012 and 2018. About two-thirds are less than five years old.

Asked about the agreement, a representative for the airline said only that China Express maintains contact with COMAC. A representative for COMAC did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the source, China Express approached COMAC about the possible order.

The carrier’s operational reasons for wanting ARJ21s are not clear. The CRJ-900 will leave production in the second half of 2020, but the airline, formerly an operator of regional jets only, is now expanding by adding Airbus A320 family aircraft. Earning profits with regional jets in China is difficult. Moreover, China Express’s CRJ-900s are not old. 

But a Chinese airline can build political support by ordering Chinese airliners. This can work in its favor when it seeks service rights and takeoff slots.

COMAC says it has taken orders for 598 ARJ21s; it has delivered about 24. In 2019, the state company said it was building 30 ARJ21s a year and could step up to 50-60 a year.

The backlog includes aircraft for Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines, the country’s three largest carriers, each of which ordered 35 ARJ21s in August 2019. Their first deliveries were due in March but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have been deferred to June, another source said.

The ARJ21 and CRJ-900 have the same all-economy capacity, 90 passengers at 79 cm (31 in.) pitch, but ARJ21 accommodation is more spacious, with economy seats 46 cm wide in rows of five; for the CRJ-900, they are just 44 cm wide in rows of four. 

The ARJ21 is much heavier, however, with an empty weight of about 25 metric tons, compared with 21.5 metric tons for the CRJ-900. The Chinese aircraft’s engine, the General Electric CF34-10 turbofan, is of later design than the CF34-8 of the CRJ-900.

—Research by Ryan Wang

Bradley Perrett

Bradley Perrett covered China, Japan, South Korea and Australia. He is a Mandarin-speaking Australian.