x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Chinese aircraft takes on global rivals

The country¿s first serious domestic competition for Airbus and Boeing in aircraft making is only the start.

A visitor walks down from a mock-up of Chinese-made C919 passenger airliner at the 8th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition (Zhuhai Airshow) in Zhuhai, southern coast of Guangdong province, China, Monday, Nov. 15, 2010. The airshow will runs from Nov. 16 to Nov. 21, 2010.  (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) *** Local Caption ***  XKC115_China_Airshow.jpg
A visitor walks down from a mock-up of Chinese-made C919 passenger airliner at the 8th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition (Zhuhai Airshow) in Zhuhai, southern coast of Guangdong province, China, Monday, Nov. 15, 2010. The airshow will runs from Nov. 16 to Nov. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) *** Local Caption *** XKC115_China_Airshow.jpg

The announcement that China's new C919 airliner had secured its first orders was a headline writer's dream, with the likes of "jet takes off" among the more obvious attention-grabbing phrases.

And the news at Airshow China 2010 of 100 orders for the C919, China's home-made rival to the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320, may have grabbed plenty of column inches but it was anything but unexpected.

Many had predicted Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines would be launch customers for the narrow-bodied plane, even if some hinted the companies had little choice in the matter.

Joining the big three of Chinese civil aviation as launch customers of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) model were Hainan Airlines and two leasing companies, one of them Chinese and the other General Electric Capital Aviation Services in the US.

The C919, although not scheduled to make its maiden flight for another four years, is already looking a more promising project than China's airliner of the 1970s and 1980s, the disastrous Y-10.

This lumbering, reheated Boeing 707 was so uncompetitive that even the state airline executives would not touch it with a barge pole.

It did at least get built and made a few flights, which is more than can be said for the C919 at the moment, but China's emergence from its Mao-induced isolationism put paid to its prospects and it did not enter commercial service.

When the first orders for the C919 were announced last week, Liao Quanwang, an executive vice-president at the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a consortium of aircraft makers, had high hopes for the new plane.

"In the US, Boeing takes the lead. In France it is Airbus. I hope one day the C919 can dominate our home market," Mr Liao was quoted by local media as saying.

While the C919 will have a huge advantage in its home market, the greater interest is in whether it will become an international success.

In an industry as safety-conscious as aviation, trying to sell an aircraft with a fuselage stamped "Made in China", and all the baggage that goes with it, may not be easy.

Boeing and Airbus are developing the successors to their 737 and A320 models and, while some analysts believe the C919 may be a match for what is currently available from the world's two dominant airliner makers, being competitive with the next generation of narrow-bodied aircraft will be a much bigger challenge.

While the C919's smaller regional jet cousin, the ARJ-21, has secured more than 200 orders or options, some analysts have described international interest in the aircraft as disappointing, although renewed efforts to sell the plane globally were announced last week.

In the C919's favour, at least the international market for airliners is more open than Mr Liao's comments might suggest. Even Air France, the flag carrier for the country in which Airbus is based, has a fleet that is one quarter Boeing.

British Airways, based in the country where the wings for Airbus aircraft are made, is occasionally jokingly called "Boeing Always" after its preference for the US aircraft.

So if the C919 can prove itself as a reliable model in its home market and secure the necessary certifications, western, Russian and other airlines are likely to be open-minded enough to take it seriously when looking for new hardware, especially as it is likely to be very competitively priced.

Ultimately, though, the C919 is just the start. It is China's first serious attempt to take on Boeing and Airbus and, even if its international success is modest, do not expect the country to give up there.

It is sending dozens of engineers overseas every year to the best western aviation engineering colleges, and the resources available to them are on another level compared with the 1970s when the Y-10 project was being developed.

The passenger jet market is notoriously difficult to break into but China is investing for the long-term, and the boardrooms of Toulouse and Seattle must be getting jittery at what faces them.

When it comes to ambition in modern China, the sky is the limit.

business@thenational.ae