Taking the COMAC ARJ21–700 for a ride

Welcome on board the Frankenplane. COMAC’s ARJ21–700 is a mishmash of parts that almost defies logic and engineering. It blends old and new technologies to carry 70ish passengers across China today and potentially further afield at some point in the future. It is a rare bird to fly. And it was an absolutely bizarre experience from start to finish.

My boarding pass, made all sorts of official thanks to many stamps

While I think the back story and quirks of the process are as interesting as actually being on board I’m pretty sure that’s not how most of y’all are going to see things so the review is slightly out of order. Hopefully it still makes sense.

On board the ARJ21

Our flight departed from a hard stand at Chengdu’s Shuangliu International Airport; that’s not something that generally bothers me and it allowed for some great views as we taxied through the dawn light to our plane. It also meant standing in a ridiculously crowded area as multiple flights all tried to board at the same time. Welcome to China.

The boarding area for the bus gates was loud and crowded.

We walked off the bus, up the stairs and on to a spectacularly clean plane. The inside showed none of the grime the outside accumulated. The first class cabin (only 2 rows) was empty for our flight while economy class was about 80% full. During boarding there were newspapers available for passengers, even in economy.

On board in economy. Newspapers out for anyone to take.

There were also two maintenance engineers waiting in the cabin when we boarded, one on each side of the aisle in the rear exit row. The only other experience I’ve had with mechanics regularly staffed on a flight is the Island Hopper, and we needed him that trip. Fortunately this time around we didn’t suffer a similar fate. Indeed, the flight was mostly uneventful, save for a scramble to grab a vacant window seat right as the boarding door closed. Sadly, I lost that race.

First class on the ARJ21

A hot breakfast was offered on the 2 hour flight, with a choice of porridge or noodles. I chose the latter and was reasonably pleased. Nothing spectacular but it served the role of “airplane food” quite well.

Our 2 hour flight came with a breakfast service. I chose the noodles over porridge.

I was most amused by the “panda” cookie on offer in the meal. Given that nearly everything else in Chengdu is branded with a panda of some sort it makes sense that the meal would be, too. Honestly, the fact that the airline doesn’t do more with the panda branding is slightly surprising to me.

Yes, you get to eat a panda on board Chengdu Airlines!

Our flight also carried a security officer (first row of coach, on the aisle) who mostly spent his time in the forward galley or the first class cabin. Most of the crew stayed in the first class cabin with the curtain pulled closed once the meal service was finished. Not too shocking, really.

The plane was surprisingly loud inside. The MD-80 family was known for being somewhat quieter, especially up front, because of the engine placement at the back. I didn’t get that feeling from the ARJ, though possibly because most everything else flying today is way quieter than planes were a generation or two ago. Overhead announcements were hard to hear over the ambient noise.

A view of the ARJ21 interior, including the rear exits

Back to the “Frankenplane” concept, there were a few quirks that gave that feeling once inside, especially at the back of the plane. But also probably only if you’re familiar with the predecessor models. Little things, like having only two rows of seats behind the exit, speak to the strange proportions the plane carries. Similar models from other manufacturers would address that by putting the exits over the wing rather than as a door. But that’s not the tooling that was left behind.

View from the exit porthole on the ARJ21. The engine is RIGHT there.

Similarly, the positioning of the engines relative to the exits is interesting. Which is to say that it is RIGHT THERE. Obviously no one is popping the door if the engines are still running but it is still crazy to see them right there.

Personal air vents…hallelujah!

And also, exits on both sides rather than just one like the MDs run. In that sense it looks a bit like the 727–200, with exits right at the engines.

History of the ARJ21

Instability and uncertainty defined development of the ARJ (“Advanced Regional Jet”) from the beginning. The project launched in 2002 with expectation of first flight in 2005 and commercial service starting in 2006. That schedule was ultimately delayed more than a decade as certification challenges struck and COMAC worked to ramp up production of the type.

Here’s B-3322, my ARJ21 ride to Hefei. And it is filthy.

The fuselage is strikingly similar to the DC-9 or MD-80 families. This should come as little surprise given that the MD-80 was produced in China under a license from McDonnell-Douglas and the tooling remained in country when that project concluded. The blueprints for the aircraft reportedly were copies of the originals, with a new title block applied, though COMAC insists it is an original design. It is a stubby version of the type, with the –700 version (the one in production) designed to carry 70–90 passengers, depending on interior layout. A stretched –900 model design exists as well, at least in theory.

View out the window, including the other ARJ21 that's in service these days.
View out the window, including the other ARJ21 that’s in service these days.

Ukrainian aerospace giant Antonov contributed a new wing for the jet. General Electric holds an exclusive contract for the power plant, with CF34–10A engines providing the aircraft’s thrust. Many other western companies are involved with other components, including avionics.

In 2010 the Antonov-designed wing failed static load testing. In 2012 further delays were announced. Specific reasons were not disclosed but a Reuters investigation suggested wing cracks and wiring issues contributed. It was not until 30 December 2014 that the aircraft received type certification from CAAC. The first commercial delivery came 11 months later, in November 2015. Commercial service was not approved until seven months after that (and, no, I do not know what the extra “commercial service” approval is all about).

That guy was NOT impressed with my selfie game

The first flight finally took place on 28 June 2016. COMAC certified the aircraft for mass production in July 2017; one additional aircraft delivery took place since that time. Chengdu Airlines now owns three of the type; only two (registrations B-3321 and B-3322) are in commercial service.

In the 17 months since the inaugural commercial flight Chengdu Airlines carried some 30,000 passengers on the ARJ21. That milestone was reached the week I took my trip so I’m claiming the title of being the 30,000th passenger.

If that number seems low, well, it should. Then again, the plane doesn’t fly every day and sometimes takes long vacations for reasons that remain unclear to the public.

Enjoying the ARJ21 wingtip view, even from my aisle seat

In theory production can ramp up now, allowing the company to deliver on the 400+ frames ordered. In reality, I’m guessing that doesn’t happen.

Booking an ARJ21 flight

Booking flights in China is not trivial, especially without local language skills. CTrip.com solves most of those problems, but in the case of the ARJ21 that only helps so much. The aircraft operates only a handful of flights each week — no more than one turn per day is scheduled — and to different cities from the Chengdu hub. Oh, and which cities it serves seems to change from time to time.

I leaned on friends to get details on which routes would be flown the week I was in town but even that was not enough. It seems that finding the ARJ21 flights available for booking is something of a crap-shoot. At 45 or 30 days out the flights were not listed on CTrip nor on the company’s website (accessed through Google Translate; no way I’d be able to complete a booking there). Fortunately the prices for other flights from Chengdu to Shanghai (my ultimate destination for a conference) were holding steady so I was able to wait it out.

I checked daily. Or more than daily, in many cases. Eventually the flights appeared. Since I was traveling on a Wednesday I would be flying to Xinqiao International Airport in Hefei, a city I’d never heard of that happens to have nearly 8 million residents. On some days the ARJ21 flies to Changsha Huanghua International Airport (CSX); occasionally it continues from there to Shanghai. Or nonstop to Shanghai. And all of that might change on a whim. Good luck.

Finally seeing this itinerary displayed on ctrip was a HUGE win. I was able to book, but not without trouble.
Finally seeing the ARJ in an itinerary displayed on ctrip was a HUGE win. I was able to book, but not without trouble. (This is from a different date, but you get the idea)

With the ticket booked I only had to hope that I wouldn’t be subject to an aircraft swap nor sleep past the early departure time from Chengdu. I didn’t fully believe it was a done deal until we started taxiing, but everything worked out okay in the end.

Looking to the future with the ARJ21

Okay…so it flies. It carried 30,000 passengers so far and maybe COMAC will even be able to scale up production a bit to get a few dozen delivered by the end of the decade. Maybe. What does that portend for the 400+ on order?

Laviator selfie on board, because why not. Nothing particularly special in the lav otherwise.

My bet is that fewer than 100 are ever built. There’s just no reason to go there. The bulk of ARJ21 orders were signed more than a decade ago; fewer than 20 are allocated to airlines outside of China. It just doesn’t seem likely that this plane is long for the world. Especially when so many other options exist in that space.

COMAC is heavily invested in its C919 program — a larger aircraft to compete wit the A320 and 737 lines — and, quite frankly, the order book there appears more realistic, even if slightly smaller. The largest order for the ARJ21–700 is for 100 aircraft by Henan Airlines. That’s a company that owns four E190s today and doesn’t seem to be operating at all. The wkipedia article on the airline suggests that local authorities attempted to revoke the use of the provincial name by the airline after a crash in 2010. The airline suddenly being in position to take 100 ARJs just seems incredibly unlikely to come to fruition.

It seems this part was manufactured in 2013, years before the aircraft was delivered.

COMAC got the practice it needed dealing with certifications, manufacturing, supply chain, and more. It can translate those efforts into the C919 work and deliver a product that is in greater demand and more likely to be useful to the airlines when it is delivered, hopefully not more than a decade later than initially expected.

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