China's major aircraft manufacturer COMAC pulled out all the stops yesterday for a ceremony to launch its first ever large jetliner, the C919. When it completes testing and enters service (COMAC says that will be in three years, but these things never run smoothly, especially if you've never done it before), the C919 will compete with the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320.
Ever since Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997, the manufacture of 100+ seat jetliners has been a duopoly, and the barriers to entering this market are huge. So it says something about China's ambitions to be a global economic and industrial power that it is taking on this duopoly. And it's not just the C919; COMAC is already thinking about an even bigger jet to compete with the Boeing 777.
COMAC has more than 500 orders for the C919, but these are almost all domestic, and the international competitiveness of the aircraft against the Boeing and Airbus offerings is a huge question mark. American aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia is highly sceptical. He notes that COMAC is also responsible for the 'aeronautical atrocity' known as the ARJ21, a regional jet based on decades-old US designs:
China’s attention is now turning toward the larger C919, itself delayed until around 2019. Yet the same fundamental problem that hobbled the ARJ21 – a demand for technology transfer from all Western suppliers without any intellectual property protection for these suppliers – is in play for the C919, and will likely ruin the bigger jet too. As for the next step, there’s talk of following the 919 with the 929, a twin aisle model. The plan is for China’s state-owned aircraft industries to build it with help from Russia’s state-owned aircraft industries. The outcome of this fiasco is basically pre-ordained. And don’t forget my favorite theme in aviation: new market entrants have almost no chance...
...There’s worse news. Last year, according to the US International Trade Commission, China provided just $482 million in parts and structures for all US aircraft primes, including Boeing. That’s less than half of Mexico’s role in US aircraft manufacturing ($1.16 billion), and just 10% of Japan’s role ($4.86 billion). Relative to 2013, last year China’s output grew by a mere 5.9%. Mexico’s grew by 37.7%. The average year-over-year increase for the top 15 suppliers was 15.1%. This kind of structures and components work is how you build an aerospace industry, and it’s more profitable and less risky than building home-grown aircraft. In pursuit of its ill-advised jetliner programs, China has neglected huge opportunities in the global aircraft manufacturing supply chain.