China is aiming to reshape the global aviation industry with a home-grown jetliner, a direct challenge to the supremacy of Boeing and Airbus, the world’s only manufacturers of large commercial aircraft.
FOR THE RECORD:
Chinese jetliner: A Nov. 13 article in Section A about China’s effort to build a jetliner to rival industry leaders Boeing and Airbus said one of the country’s state-owned carriers, China Airlines, was expected to announce orders soon for the new aircraft, the C919. It is Air China, which is owned by the People’s Republic of China, that is expected to announce the orders. China Airlines, which is based in Taiwan, is majority owned by the Taiwanese government. —
The communist government has staked billions of dollars and national pride on the effort. What may surprise some Americans worried about slipping U.S. competitiveness is that some well-known U.S. companies are aiding China in its quest.
That partnership will be on display next week at an air show in southern China with the unveiling of a full-scale mockup of the C919. Slated for production by 2016, the 156-seat, single-aisle passenger plane would have its fuselage emblazoned with Comac, short for the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China. But inside, the most crucial systems would bear the trademarks of some of the biggest names in Western aviation.
Honeywell International Inc. will supply power units, on-board computing systems, wheels and brakes; Rockwell Collins Inc. will handle navigation systems; GE Aviation is building the avionics; Eaton Corp. is involved with fuel and hydraulics; and Parker Aerospace of Irvine is responsible for flight controls. Powering the aircraft will be two fuel-efficient engines built by CFM International, a company co-owned by GE and French conglomerate Safran.
Global supply chains are common in the aviation industry: Chicago-based Boeing and Europe’s Airbus rely on parts makers and assembly operations around the world. But China isn’t content just to buy sophisticated gear for the C919; the government has required foreign suppliers to set up joint ventures with Chinese companies.
That has put U.S. and European suppliers in a tough spot: Be willing to hand over advanced technology to Chinese firms that could one day be rivals or miss out on what’s likely to be the biggest aviation bonanza of the next half a century. Honeywell alone has snagged contracts worth more than $11 billion for the project.
“You’re faced with either being part of it or not,” said Billy Lay, a Dubai-based partner at PRTM, an international consulting firm with expertise in aerospace. “I don’t know what the alternatives are.”
Roger Seager, GE Aviation’s vice president and general manager for China, said he was confident that his company could protect its intellectual property. But the rapid rise of another Chinese transport industry — high-speed rail — challenges that notion. After sharing technology and expertise to help China develop a network of gleaming bullet trains, Japanese and European rail firms now find themselves competing with their former Chinese joint-venture partners for new contracts, both inside and outside China.
Still, Seager said it’s crucial for his company to get into China now.
“If they launch a commercial aviation industry, you’ve got to be part of it,” said Seager, whose company has garnered contracts worth about $6 billion for the C919. “You can’t take a pass and come back in 10 years. You’ve got to jump in with both feet now.... We would be remiss if we weren’t trying to be part of their growth.”
Such is the price of admission to enter the world’s fastest-growing aviation market. By one estimate, air passenger traffic in China is projected to expand by nearly 8% annually for the next 20 years. The country plans to build 70 airports by 2020.
To meet demand, China’s domestic airlines will need to buy an estimated 4,330 new aircraft valued at $480 billion over the next two decades. Currently Boeing and Airbus each control about half the Chinese market for big planes. But the Chinese government has no intention of ceding all of that future business to foreign aircraft makers. State-owned carriers China Airlines, China Southern and China Eastern are expected to announce orders for the C919 at Airshow China, which kicks off Monday in Zhuhai, a seaside city near Macao.
A big airplane, or da feiji, as it’s known here, has been the goal of China’s industrial planners for decades. The C919 will go head to head with the popular Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. The effort underscores the nation’s determination to shed its reputation as a low-cost producer of cheap goods and move up the development ladder. Aviation is one of a dozen or so areas of advanced technology, including renewable energy, in which China intends to become a global player. Among the Chinese public, the C919 has taken on a significance just short of the U.S effort to put a man on the moon.
“Every generation has its own milestone,” Zhang Yanzhong, the aircraft’s chief engineer, told state media last year. “We’ve already accomplished [nuclear weapons and satellites], the Three Gorges Dam and manned space exploration. Now the big-jet project is the next milestone.”
The aircraft’s builders are so confident, the first “9" in the jetliner’s name was picked because it sounds like “forever” in Chinese.
China is already a major assembler and parts supplier for some of the world’s best-known aircraft. Airbus’ A320s reach their final assembly in the northern port city of Tianjin. Half of Boeing’s fleet of 12,000 airplanes includes components made in China. About 600,000 Chinese workers are employed in aerospace, about as many as in the United States.
Still, the C919’s success is anything but assured. Japan, South Korea and Indonesia all failed in their attempts to build large jets. Repeated delays in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and recent problems with the Airbus A380’s engine show that even the most experienced players can stumble.
China has struggled to build its own aircraft for decades. Comac will soon roll out its first regional jet, the 78-seat ARJ21 Soaring Phoenix. Chinese officials have hailed it as a breakthrough. But experts said the ARJ21 could have a tough time competing outside China against cutting-edge models from Canada’s Bombardier and Brazil’s Embraer.
With the C919, Comac will have to master the precise integration of thousands of parts, develop a reliable maintenance network and then persuade airlines to trust the largely untested jet. Some analysts are already predicting delays in delivery.
But aviation insiders warn against underestimating China’s resolve. The country’s leaders have dreamed of building a major jetliner ever since President Nixon landed in Beijing in a gleaming Boeing 707 Air Force One four decades ago.
“I don’t think there’s any question Comac will deliver a successful airplane,” said Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing. “How successful? It’s hard to say. Clearly there’s room for us to grow, Airbus to grow and one or more competitors.... We have an advantage. We have built more airplanes than anyone else.”