China Unveils Its First National Passenger Aircraft—Rivaling Airbus and Boeing

Imagine stepping onto a Chinese-made airplane with outdated movies, scripted English from flight attendants, and corn chowder on the in-flight menu—this could be what travelers experience on China Eastern Airlines. With more than $72 billion in state support, China’s commercial airline is set to operate roughly 1,000 new Comac C919 airplanes, due to take flight before the end of this year. The airline industry is dominated by European planes like the Airbus and the American-made Boeing, which are battling the aviation market against China’s aircraft manufacturer Comac. The company has been testing a new passenger jet called the C919 for short-haul flights, and the C929 for long-haul. It’s all part of the Chinese government’s Made in China 2025 strategy, which aims to reduce China’s dependence on foreign technology.

“National airlines have long been a marker of a state’s status and prestige in the international sphere, so it’s not surprising to see a new airline in China as its importance and influence in global affairs grows,” said Michelle Murray, a professor and chair at the political studies program at Bard College in New York.

The first-class section of a China Eastern Airlines airplane.

But how does China’s first commercial airline differ from the rest? According to Skytrax, China Eastern Airlines is a three-star airline for its level of quality, from seats to service and cleanliness, putting it on par with American Airlines and easyJet. This low-cost international airline is not polished but has unbeatable prices. The cuisine offers both Western-style and Chinese meals (though you may want to steer clear of the rubbery chicken).

On the downside, one travel blogger, Christine Ka’aloa of Grrrl Traveler, said that in her experience, the cabin staff “seemed to treat me like a passenger with second-class needs, when it came to dealing with the comforts of Chinese nationals.” Ka’aloa tells AD: “Chinese technology is strong with innovating of successful Western brands, but the American public is hard won, because Chinese brands cater to Chinese consumers.” She explains: “With the pandemic’s effect on travel, I predict American travelers will stay closer to home with traditional travel brands they know, gravitating toward comfort and safety. They won’t rule out Chinese carriers completely, but it won’t be their first thought.”

Though the flight attendants have some understanding of English, their language skills are limited to a standard set of phrases and they’re not adept at going off-script. In-flight entertainment is limited too, with older films like The Karate Kid from 2010 and a video game featuring the aircraft as the star. However, the company has its own VIP lounge at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport.

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