The two main international makers of aircraft, France-based Airbus SAS and US-based Boeing Co, plan to bring improved versions of their single-aisle aircraft to the Chinese market.
The two manufacturers are working to find their first Chinese buyers of the planes, Boeing's 737 MAX and Airbus' A320neo.
According to a Boeing market analysis, China will need 3,550 single-aisle aircraft by 2030, of which only 20 percent will be used as replacements.
Airbus also forecast in February that the Asia-Pacific region will need 5,720 single-aisle aircraft in the next 20 years and that China will be one of the main markets for those products.
"Narrow-body aircraft always do well on high-frequency short routes and there are many such routes in China," said Simon Booker, director of aviation department of the professional services firm KPMG Asia-Pacific.
The current single-aisle models produced by Boeing and Airbus were all introduced in the 1990s.
Rather than design completely new planes at a great cost, both manufacturers chose to improve the existing models, which already command a large market share.
On April 11, Boeing released its conceptual design for the 737 MAX, an improved model of the 737 Boeing's most popular line of aircraft. By January, Boeing had received 9,800 orders for 737s and had delivered more than 7,000 of them.
Compared with current 737s, the 737 MAX will contain a larger and more efficient engine built by CFM International, a joint venture formed between divisions of the US-based General Electric Co and France-based Safran Group.
With the new engine and other design changes, the 737 MAX's fuel costs will be about 11 percent lower than the current 737 NG aircraft's, said Randy Tinseth, vice-president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes' marketing department.
As the rising price of fuel and the demand for reducing emissions become more important to the aviation industry, manufacturers are working harder to make their aircraft more efficient.
"A320neo's fuel costs can be 15 percent lower than the current A320 aircraft's," said Luo Chong, director of Airbus China's airline marketing department.
A320neo - the "neo" stands for "new engine options" - will give customers a choice of two different engines. One will be the same as used in the 737 MAX and the other will be the PW1100G, which is made by the US-based Pratt & Whitney Group.
Airbus' decision to introduce the A320neo was made in 2010, almost a year earlier than Boeing released its plans to build the 737 MAX. The first A320neo will be delivered in 2015, two years before the first 737 MAX.
The schedule gives Airbus an advantage in the two companies' competition to win international orders. From the end of 2010 to the end of February, 24 airlines made 1,289 confirmed orders and 266 commitment orders for the A320neo.
Meanwhile, by the end of February, 1,000 confirmed and commitment orders had come in for the 737 MAX.
Media outlets have reported that Xiamen Airlines Co Ltd, which has a fleet composed completely of Boeing aircraft, may be the first Chinese customer to buy the 737 MAX and that the two companies discussed such a purchase when Che Shanglun, general manger of the airline, attended Boeing's annual meeting in February.
Meanwhile, Airbus introduced the A320neo to Sichuan Airlines Co Ltd, which has an all Airbus-aircraft fleet, in April.
"The A320neo is not an option that is out of the bounds of consideration for Sichuan Airlines since we are working on doubling the size of our fleet by 2015," said Zhong Bin, vice-general manager of Sichuan Airlines' technical department.
But the carrier has not ordered the plane yet and its purchasing plans for the next three years are already complete, he said.
Even so, airlines still have many outstanding orders for single-aisle aircraft and thus still have an opportunity to modify them in favor of the improved models.
Boeing is confident the 737 MAX will perform well in the market and Jim Albaugh, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, forecast that Chinese airlines will order 200 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft this year.
Experts said manufacturers should pay more attention to Chinese airlines' special demands.
"Safety, price and after-sales services are all things Chinese airlines consider and both of the manufacturers can meet those needs of airlines," said Li Xiaojin, a professor at the Tianjin-based Civil Aviation University of China.
The list prices of the 737 MAX and A320neo are similar - about $95 million.