Home' Asian Aviation : AAV June 2017 Contents 30 AsianAviation | June 2017
Made in China, sort of
China’s first domestically assembled mid-sized airliner took flight recently, but with few overseas
orders, its future is less than bright as contributor Ralph Jennings finds.
CHINA’S FIRST HOMEMADE, MID-SIZED COMMERCIAL AIR-
CR AF T, the COMAC C919, has quickly secured domestic market
share, but industry analysts say its producer could wait a decade
or more to see orders accumulate overseas, where airlines put more
trust in the established brands Airbus and Boeing.
State-run Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC)
described the maiden test flight of the C919 on 5 May as a break-
through for China’s ambition to enter the world commercial aircraft
manufacturing market. The “dream” that had been “haunting the
Chinese nation for a hundred years has finally made a historic
breakthrough and the blue sky finally has a trunk liner which is de-
veloped by China completely in accordance with the world advanced
standards,” COMAC said on its website. But pre-orders totalling
570 aircraft among 23 customers are skewed heavily toward the
Shanghai-based manufacturer ’s domestic market so far, COMAC
and Chinese state media say. The C919, which is designed for 158
to 174 seats, may get orders only slowly outside China and a few
developing countries if the terms are right, aviation analysts forecast.
Western airlines, reflecting the views of their passengers, will ini-
tially worry that the made-in-China plane is unsafe even if it passes
all tests without an accident. The maiden flight took off at the busy
Shanghai Pudong International Airport and landed 79 minutes later
in the same place with no problems, COMAC said. Aviation experts
expect it to weather a list of other tests over an unspecified period,
including in hot and high-elevation parts of China, before filling orders.
“It’s a big unknown. We don’t know how good it is, its quality,”
said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School
of International Studies in Singapore. “ When it comes to designing,
and building such a big aircraft, especially one that has to meet
international standards for safety, this is all pretty much uncharted
territory for the Chinese.”
COMAC spent seven years and at least US$9.5 billion to develop
the plane that’s comparable in size to an Airbus 320 or Boeing 737.
Airbus and Boeing will probably hold their advantage in the world
market for the next 10 or 20 years, said Shukor Yusof, founder of
Malaysia-based aviation consultancy Endau Analytics.
“ The reality is, as of today and the next decade or two, no other
manufacturer can rival Airbus and Boeing in 150 to 180-seat aircraft
in terms of costs, efficiency and reliability,” Yusof said. “ The difference
is in the know-how and the track record.”
In China, where the China Daily newspaper says 90 percent of
pre-orders have been placed, spread of the new aircraft would have
government support as state agencies control both the manufac-
turer and airlines. Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, Hainan
Airlines and Sichuan Airlines are among the buyers, China Daily says.
Leasing companies, also mostly in China, have placed around 250
of the pre-orders.
“China’s aerospace industry is growing at one of the fastest rates
in the world,” said Steven Lien, Asia-Pacific president of US-based
Honeywell Aerospace, which developed the C919’s auxiliary power
system, wheels, brakes and flight control package. “In addition, the
Chinese government continues to support the aviation industry not
only for larger aircraft transport types, but also in airports and new
China’s aircraft manufacturer showed maturity, speed and open-
ness in working with Honeywell on the C919, Lien said. Honeywell
has worked with COMAC since 2008.
China’s first home-grown jetliner, the smaller ARJ21, faced delays
due to tests and delayed certificates before being delivered to its
first airline (a Chinese carrier) in November 2015. COMAC probably
learned from that plane’s shortfalls as it developed the C919, said
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group Corp., a
US-based aerospace and defence market research firm. COMAC
intends to sell 2,300 aircraft, according to the Teal Group.
COMAC’s cooperation with Western firms such as GE Aviation
and Honeywell Aerospace might make foreign airlines keener to buy,
officials from those firms say, although how much of that goodwill
is an attempt to retain China’s favour is an open question. The C919
is made up almost entirely of foreign parts and systems including
CFM engines, Liebherr landing gear systems, GE flight recorders,
Honeywell wheels and brakes and Arconic components for the
fuselage just to name a few.
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