x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Chinese hopes rise on new aircraft

Although not as cutting-edge as its rivals, the Chinese C919 aircraft could still be commercially viable thanks to China's cost advantages.

China’s three big airlines Air China, China Eastern, and China Southern could soon be operating the C919 jetliner being developed by Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, above, which is due to have its first test flight in 2014.
China’s three big airlines Air China, China Eastern, and China Southern could soon be operating the C919 jetliner being developed by Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, above, which is due to have its first test flight in 2014.

Take a domestic flight with any of the country's three big airlines - China Southern, China Eastern and Air China - and it is easy to forget which one you are on.

The seats are mostly blue, perhaps with a bit of red thrown in, the service is good, if not quite up to the standards of Etihad Airways or Emirates Airline, and the hardware usually comes from Boeing or Airbus.

In future, the three Chinese state-run carriers may be more easy to distinguish, if not from each other then at least from the world's other major airlines.

Rather than flying American or European aircraft, especially on domestic routes, the trio could be operating the C919, China's own narrow-body passenger jet aircraft.

This rival to the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320, with space for about 170 passengers, is due to take to the skies on its first test flight in 2014.

China Southern, China Eastern and Air China are believed to be negotiating to buy the C919, and there is speculation the first orders could be announced at Airshow China at Zhuhai, in the south of the country, this month.

The aircraft's designer, Wu Guanghui, has predicted more than 2,000 C919s, which are to be built in Shanghai and may eventually have Chinese engines, could be sold.

Entering the passenger jet market is notoriously difficult, as countless projects that failed to take off across Asia prove, but if the C919 joins its predecessors in the aviation graveyard it will not be for want of trying.

The authorities in the Middle Kingdom hope it could be the starting point for China's ascent into the global civil air market.

The country, says Dr Howard Smith, the head of the aircraft design group at Cranfield University in England, is "really going for it".

"They're obviously very keen and they've set their sights high," Dr Smith says.

"They've got the resources to do it, [although] they've got quite a lot of catching up to do."

Experts say China is a long way from competing with Boeing and Airbus. Shortages of expertise have been identified in areas such as engine research and development and avionics, and the country lacks domestic suppliers.

Dr Shijun Guo, a colleague of Dr Smith's at Cranfield with decades of research and industrial experience in European and Chinese aviation, says many of the engineers are young and cannot yet match the skills of their global rivals.

"In terms of technology, it's struggling," says Dr Shijun, also a visiting professor at Beijing Institute of Technology. "They have a lot of weaknesses. In terms of manufacturing, it's even worse for large aircraft."

China may be making A320s through a joint venture in Tianjin, but the production line for these is a copy of the Airbus facility in Hamburg. Creating something of this complexity from scratch is another matter.

Tony Dixon, the editor of the UK magazine Airliner World, believes any airliner produced in China now would be "so far behind everybody else".

"They don't have the aircraft technology," Mr Dixon says. "They don't have the licensed engineers."

But one promising sign is that a project to produce a smaller regional jet, to compete with Canada's Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer, is already well advanced.

There are more than 200 firm orders and options for the ARJ21, and the first flight took place two years ago.

As with the C919 project, the development of the ARJ21 now comes under the wing of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), the state organisation charged with creating China's own passenger aircraft.

The ARJ21 was produced through significant foreign collaboration and could be seen as a heavily updated version of an American airliner, the McDonnell-Douglas DC-9, and its successors.

But with the C919, China is going it alone to a much greater extent, which means the challenges are greater.

Even if the C919 is not as cutting edge as its rivals from Boeing or Airbus, especially in their future variants, it could still be commercially viable thanks to China's long-held cost advantages, Dr Smith says.

"If you have an aircraft that is not quite state of the art but is incredibly cheap to procure, that changes [the commercial viability]," he says.

The designers of the C919 claim the aircraft will also have operating costs 10 per cent lower than its rivals.

Another factor in the C919's favour is the size of the domestic market. Boeing has suggested China's aircraft fleet could triple over two decades, which means more than 3,500 new planes, 70 per cent of them narrow-bodied.

And few think China Southern, China Eastern and Air China will have much choice over whether they fly the C919 or not.

"I am sure the airlines will be given it," Mr Dixon says. "Whether they want to have it or not is another matter. If they don't want it they won't admit it."

Dr Shijun agrees "internal policy" will influence procurement decisions, although he says the C919 could be tailored very much for the Chinese market and the needs of the country's airlines. Domestically, he says, it could offer real advantages.

Other passenger aircraft projects have stalled at a later stage than the C919 scheme is at now, with the first test flight not due for four years and entry into service scheduled for 2016.

But if the C919 does fly and become successful in China, where COMAC hopes to produce as many as 100 a year, overseas interest could develop.

"We may see western operators and so on having a serious look at this aircraft and future models," says Dr Smith.

Indeed Dr Shijun says the goal is for China to become a global player in passenger airline production. It cannot be done in a decade, he says, and the Chinese makers know this.

But their seriousness is shown by the fact that they are sending scores of engineers abroad to be taught in places such as Cranfield, where Dr Shijun runs a master's degree course for the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, a consortium of Chinese aircraft makers.

"Global competition will be … a much longer-term ambition. For the short term, they will try to test their own market," he says.


Billions spent on aviation lame ducks

Asia's aviation industry is littered with attempts to produce indigenous passenger aircraft that never got off the ground.

In China there was the Y-10, developed in the 1970s and heavily rumoured to be a copy of the Boeing 707. US newspapers at the time reported a 707 had disappeared from records and was being dismantled in a hangar in China to be reverse engineered.

The Y-10 made its first flight in 1980 but as it was heavy and thirsty, Chinese airlines did not want to buy it, even though national pride was at stake.

Over three decades up to the 1990s, Japan had a series of initiatives looking at projects including a regional jet with space for about 60 passengers, and a commercial airliner with capacity for more than three times as many.

Despite the country's success in other engineering sectors, none ever flew. But Japan is now one of the most important suppliers to Boeing.