In the first week of May, the C919, a single-aisle, twin-engine aircraft for the commercial market had a successful maiden test flight lasting about an hour. And with that, the aircraft business began the movement from a duopoly to an oligopoly.
For years the two segments of the aircraft industry had just two players each. The larger aircraft market has been controlled by Airbus and Boeing and the smaller by Embraer and Bombardier. And now the C919, a 150-170 seat aircraft made by state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac), is set to change the landscape.
China is very keen that the rest of its reputation catch up to further its global ambitions. Its aerospace sector builds on the country’s pride and nobody counts the pennies. In early March, China launched a cargo spacecraft to dock with its unmanned orbiting space laboratory to test re-supply possibilities for a planned manned space laboratory in five years. This, when Russia has given up on Mir and the US is having second thoughts about the expenses of the International Space Station. Funding for aircraft development in China comes with a blank cheque.Not easy
Comac has announced that the company will commercialise production and begin deliveries in about three years. But that’s what they said in 2015, and the original date for the first flight was 2014. The project has been quite delayed; it cannot be easy to design and build an aircraft when the technology is closely held by so few around the world, and much of it subject to export restrictions.
A report in China Daily USA explained that more than 50 per cent of the components were made either by Chinese companies or by foreign joint ventures in China. Most of the large components were made by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China. Critical components that have come from overseas include avionics from Rockwell Collins, and engines from a joint venture between GE, USA, and France’s Safran SA. Much help has come from the West; the three pilots on the maiden flight graduated from the National Test Pilot School of the US.
The C919 will compete with Airbus A320 and Boeing’s 737 series. From the time the C919 was first conceived and designed, Airbus and Boeing have improved their aircraft. They are positioning themselves for greater operational performance and possibly lower costs. Airbus assembles some A320 aircraft in Tianjin, and Boeing in collaboration with Comac is due to set up a completion and delivery centre in China. Comac is also a supplier to Boeing.
The company estimates that there is a domestic demand for at least about 2,000, and a memo is sure to go out to the domestic airlines from the party about which aircraft to buy.
The global market for aircraft is certainly large enough to accommodate three players; the two current players have long waitlists and often delay deliveries leading to order cancellations. But with a new entrant unmindful of profitability and backed by foreign policy objectives and large financial support, the competition will certainly get to be more interesting.
The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston