What Do Chinese Passengers Want in an Aircraft?

With 1.3 Billion potential market consumers, China is on the radar of nearly every industry. As the world’s second largest aviation market, the China is also a major focus for airlines and aircraft manufacturers across the world. For years, China has been a key player in commercial aerospace , which has driven manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus to go as far as setting up aircraft factories and completion centers in the country, and of course in COMAC’s case, designing and building fully indigenous commercial aircraft. When determining their business strategies, in addition to the numerical factors of fuel efficiency and capacity, both manufacturers and airlines know that they cannot overlook the core of the commercial aviation industry, the passenger. Thus, one important question manufacturers and airlines in the China market must ask is, what do Chinese passengers want in an airplane?

If you have flown in the U.S. recently, you have probably noticed how ubiquitous inflight wifi has become. Something that seemed like a niche service on select airlines a decade ago has now made its way onto the vast majority of aircraft, from jumbo jets to regional jets. However, in China, the onboard wifi market is only in its infancy. According to research from RouteHappy, in 2016, 73% of Chinese passengers polled stated that inflight connectivity would be their first choice for in-flight entertainment. However, in 2018 only 3% of commercial flights in China had connectivity equipment onboard. Compared to the U.S., where at that time 78% of all commercial aircraft offered wifi services to passengers, China lags behind severely.[1]

Photo: Global Times

 While there are a variety of factors contributing to China’s dearth of onboard wifi, such as a shortage of satellites providing coverage over China[2], one of the largest constraints was a law prohibiting the use of cell phones on all Chinese passenger flights by the CAAC (Civil Aviation Administration of China).  This law was changed in January of 2018, removing the restrictions on cell phones and thereby removing one of the greatest obstacles to onboard connectivity. In addition, partnerships with foreign SatCom providers as well as a growing Chinese satellite network are paving the way for a new era of connectivity in China.[3] Already, a growing number of Chinese airlines are offering their passengers in-flight connectivity, and that number is set to soar. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we will see ARJ21s and C919s being delivered with tell-tale domes housing their satellite internet equipment.

Photo: China Daily

Onboard amenities such as entertainment comprise only a portion of the complete passenger experience. Often, a passenger’s primary concern during their flight is comfort, which has the greatest overall impact on the flight experience. And what is the major contributing factor to a passenger’s comfort? Space.  However, space is regularly  affected by global economics; in recent years, as airlines compete to offer passengers the lowest prices, passenger space has decreased in an effort to increase the number of cabin seats, thereby increasing revenue. In other cases, the mission has an effect on aircraft size and in turn, overall cabin space. Anyone who has flown a small regional jet has probably noticed the effect cabin size has on comfort by way of personal space.

While many airlines are opting for more seats and less space, some are trying to find a balance between increasing revenue and improving the passenger experience.  For the Chinese market (and future global market) COMAC is striving to strike that balance with aircraft that offer increased comfort at a reasonable price. With its cutting-edge efficiency and budget-friendly price tag, the increased economy provided to Chinese airlines by the C919 may reduce the need to sacrifice legroom for additional seats, allowing airlines to offer comfort and affordability. In addition, passengers flying regional routes in the ARJ21 need not stress about claustrophobic cabins. Although many regional jets offer tight space onboard, the ARJ21 features a wide cabin with 2-3 seating so passengers can experience the convenience of regional routes while enjoying the comfort of a mainline aircraft.

Finally, another major factor sure to influence the decision of Chinese passengers in the future is national pride. Here in the US, especially among those in the aviation community, it’s not uncommon to find people who hold a strong preference for Boeing over Airbus at least partially due to their national pride. The famous phrase “if it’s not Boeing, I’m not going” is a particularly well-known example of some American’s support for homegrown aircraft.  Similarly, there are many Europeans who are proud to fly on Airbus aircraft that were built in their home country(ies). With the advent of China’s commercial aircraft industry, this will surely be an increasingly relevant factor in Chinese passengers’ overall flying experience. For any passenger, there is an undeniable degree of pride felt when you sit aboard an aircraft built by your own country. To design and build something as complex and advanced as a commercial airliner is certainly worth a sense of pride, and is the perfect inspiration for a new generation of COMAC fanboys/girls to rival those of Boeing and Airbus.

From the outside, the Chinese market may seem like a daunting enigma to those who wish to understand it. However, in the case of China’s air travel industry, the key to understanding the passenger experience demands of the Chinese market is relatively easy. Chinese passengers desire certain features such as better prices, more comfort, connectivity, and to an extent, an aircraft they can be proud of. In other words, Chinese passengers want the same things that passengers the world over want! This fact has definitely not gone unnoticed by the major aircraft manufacturers, including COMAC, and it is most definitely shaping the future of Chinese aircraft designs and beyond.

[1] http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/tech/2017-08/15/content_30626943.htm

[2] http://www.xinhuanet.com/fortune/2017-04/27/c_1120881084.htm

[3] https://www.inmarsat.com/news/first-chinese-airline-flight-equipped-with-wi-fi-internet/