The road ahead for the Chinese aerospace industry is long and arduous and competition with the Western rivals will undoubtedly be a formidable challenge
Friday, May 5 this year was a “red letter day” for the stateowned Chinese aerospace industry as it was on this day that the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Limited, COMAC for short, earned the unique distinction of launching on its successful maiden flight, the first large passenger jet, the COMAC C919, designed, developed and manufactured within the country. This new airliner got airborne on its first flight from Pudong International Airport in Shanghai.
A Word about the Predecessor
While the maiden flight by the C919 will certainly be a landmark event in the history of the Chinese aerospace industry, this was not the first passenger airliner that China produced. The credit for the first airliner must go to the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) of China who, in collaboration with Antonov of Ukraine, was responsible for the design, development and production of the Advanced Regional Jet designated as the ARJ-21 21 is a short- to medium-range, turbofan, regional airliner capable of seating up to 90 passengers and has a maximum range of 3,700 km. Development of this aircraft had begun in March 2002 and it took to the sky for the first time on November 28, 2008. The fact that it took just six- and-a-half years from the drawing board to maiden flight, was a remarkable feat indeed! This is particularly so when viewed against the track record of the Indian aerospace industry. In 2009, AVIC became a part of COMAC.
IN 2012, AN ASSESSMENT BY AIRBUS INDICATED THAT THE C919 COULD BE IN A POSITION TO OFFER COMPETITION TO AIRBUS 320 BY 2020
The ARJ-21 was certified by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) on December 30, 2014, and the aircraft entered revenue service with Chengdu Airlines on June 28, 2016. As per reports, it appears that this platform has a decent market potential as so far, a total of 413 orders have been received from 19 customers, mostly from within China though. Although China claims that the ARJ-21 is a completely indigenous design, one does not fail to notice the striking resemblance with the MD-80 and MD-90, both from McDonnell Douglas that were manufactured under licence in China. When the programme of production under licence of the two McDonnell Douglas airliners ended, the Chinese aerospace industry switched over to the ARJ-21 project.
The COMAC C919
The project to develop the COMAC C919 which is a narrow-body, twin-jet airliner, was launched in 2008, around the time when the ARJ-21 carried out its first flight. Halfway through the project, in June 2011, Ryanair, a low cost carrier from Ireland, entered into an agreement with COMAC on the development of the C919. The first prototype was rolled out from the factory on November 2, 2015, but could get airborne only one and half years later. Its entry into service is planned for 2020, a time frame which appears to be somewhat over optimistic and in all likelihood will be difficult to meet with. The C919 can seat 168 passengers and has a maximum range of 5,555 km. The aircraft is powered by the Leap 1C engine from CFM International. However, AVIC Commercial Aircraft Engine Company of China was also assigned the responsibility of developing an indigenous power plant for the C919. The engine developed indigenously designated as the ACAE CJ-1000A, was unveiled at the Zhuhai Airshow in 2012.
The C919 has been developed by the Chinese aerospace industry as a competitor to the Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737MAX 8. As of the end of last year, nearly 600 aircraft have been ordered from 23 customers that include primarily the aircraft leasing companies as well as the airlines, both from within China. The Chinese carriers that have ordered the C919 are already operating either the Airbus A320 or the Boeing 737. In the C919, the Chinese carriers will definitely be looking for lower acquisition as well as operating costs and performance on a par or better than the Western airliners of similar size. COMAC appears determined to penetrate and capture at least 33 per cent of the domestic market and 20 per cent of the global market by the year 2035. The marketing effort by COMAC will also be driven by the overall objective of the Chinese Government to reduce dependence on foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEM) namely Boeing and Airbus.
As stated earlier, COMAC regards the C919 as a competitor to the Airbus A320neo which is the latest member of the Airbus A320 family. The A320neo was launched on December 1, 2010, and undertook it maiden flight on September 25, 2014. The aircraft entered service with the German carrier Lufthansa on January 25, 2016. As of last month, i.e. April 2017, Airbus had firm orders for as many as 5,054 aircraft. There are three variants namely the A319neo, A320neo and A321neo with varying seating capacity. The unit cost ranges from $99.5 million for the A319 to $108.4 million for the A320neo and $127 million for the A321. By March 2017, Airbus had delivered 137 A320neo airliners and the company aims to achieve a figure of 200 by the end of the year. The company is also in the process of enhancing passenger seating capacity of the A320neo from 168 to 180.
Boeing 737 MAX
The other possible competitor for the C919 as perceived by COMAC, is the Boeing 737 MAX which is a fourth generation platform from the Boeing 737 family. Powered by the Leap 1B engine from CFM International and innovations in the airframe, this twin-engine narrow-body airliner offers significantly better performance over the Boeing 737 Next Generation version. The maiden flight of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 was completed on January 29, 2016, nearly 49 years after the inaugural flight of the first 737 on April 9, 1967. The Boeing 737 MAX 8 has received FAA certification on March 9, 2017 and deliveries are expected to commence in May 2017. There are three main variants of the new family, the 737 MAX 7, 737 MAX 8 and 737 MAX 9 which are based on the 737-700, -800 and -900ER, respectively the best-selling versions of the 737 Next Generation family. Unit cost varies from $91 million to $116 million.
A Formidable Challenge
While the ARJ-21 is well suited for regional aviation, the C919 on the other hand, is a much larger platform that can seat up to 168 passengers and is meant to compete in the global market for single-aisle jets which is currently dominated by the various models of the A320 from Airbus and of the 737 from Boeing. The two OEMs will only strengthen their position in the market with the introduction of the newer models, the A320neo and the 737 MAX series. In fact, in 2012, an assessment by Airbus indicated that the C919 could be in a position to offer competition to Airbus 320 by 2020.
It is well known that China has the aspirations of emerging as a superpower and to challenge the supremacy of the United States. Over the years, the Chinese aerospace industry has come a long way. However, its growth has largely been founded on reverse engineering. This is clearly evident in their successes in the domain of the military aerospace industry wherein it is now developing weapons platforms of the fifth-generation technology. Their foray in the civil aviation industry is part of the national growth strategy and is only to be expected. Also, the Chinese aerospace industry is better integrated with the West as is evident in the technologies employed in the C919. However, on the question of the C919 emerging as a competitor to Boeing and Airbus, it is yet too early. The two Western OEMs are well established and have a considerable lead in technology. While it may not be wise to underestimate the capability of the Chinese aerospace industry, at this point in time, it has just made a beginning. The Western aerospace industry will not remain stagnant, but will continue to forge ahead. The road ahead for the Chinese aerospace industry is long and arduous and competition with the Western rivals will undoubtedly be a formidable challenge.