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China is 10 Years Away From Challenge Boeing, Airbus Duopoly of Aviation Industry

The Comac C919, Shanghai - Pudong International (PVG / ZSPD) China - December 17, 2017 Early rotation during take off on rwy 34R, the 2nd C919 is doing its first flight.
The Comac C919, Shanghai - Pudong International (PVG / ZSPD) China - December 17, 2017 Early rotation during take off on rwy 34R, the 2nd C919 is doing its first flight.

“I think it will take China one or two generations of airplanes to have a truly worldwide competitive product but it’s a logical evolution, provided the market size of the country.”

In the wake of two Boeing 737 MAX crashes in the last five months, increased attention has turned to Comac, the Chinese state-owned aircraft manufacturer also formally known as the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China. The Ethiopian Airlines crash in March compelled several countries, including China, to ground the Boeing 737 MAX shortly after the plane crashed while en route from Addis Ababa to Kenya’s capital Nairobi. However, a recent interview by an aviation industry expert suggested China is ten years away from contending with Boeing and Airbus.

Comac’s Maiden Voyage in 2017

China’s intention to build and fly its own jetliners does not come as a surprise, as the country’s first-built passenger airplane C-919 marked its maiden flight in 2017. However, that aircraft will not be able to fly commercially until 2021 due to the length of the process to obtain proper safety certifications. Comac started building the airplane in 2008 and initially postponed its flight debut several times.

The Shanghai-based firm partnered with United Aircraft Corp to also develop a wide-body 250-to-320-seat aircraft CR929 for long-distance flights, such as the Beijing-New York route. Currently, Comac’s two jetliners the C-919 and ARJ21 are both small size planes.

In 2015, the company said it had sent its first ARJ21 plane to a domestic low-cost air carrier. The first C919 is expected to be exported in 2021.

It Will Take Time for China’s Comac to Compete With Boeing and Airbus

The airline industry has long been dominated by manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, but China’s inherent market size means Comac could move to one day be a valid competitor. One veteran of the airline industry told CNBC’s Martin Soong at the Boao Forum in China that China will need more than a decade to reach the same level as the world’s other air carrier giants.

“I think it will take China one or two generations of airplanes to have a truly worldwide competitive product but it’s a logical evolution, provided the market size of the country,” said Bernard Charles, vice chairman and CEO of Dassault Systemes, which sells software to aviation manufacturers.

Charles added that aerospace is a vastly complex industry, and even well-established companies need time to gather knowledge to manufacture reliable commercial airplanes.

While China is manufacturing its own planes, it still relies on imported airplane components. The country buys aircraft engines from CFM International, a U.S.-French joint venture company.

Comac has so far received 500 purchase orders from 23 companies, with China Eastern Airlines as its primary customer. The price of the C-919 aircraft is $50 million, half the price of the Airbus 320 and Boeing 737.

However, how safe Comac’s jetliners are in comparison to Boeing or Airbus is unknown. It is too early to predict whether China’s grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX will benefit the Chinese-manufactured planes.

“China has evinced an aggressive reaction to the 737 Max incidents, but a possible Boeing stumble still may not present much of an opportunity for China’s nascent aviation industry,” explained Brock Silvers, managing director of Kaiyuan Capital.

Boeing vs. Airbus: Who Sells More Planes?

Boeing booked 690 plane purchase orders from January to November 2018, thanks to its new model 737 MAX, before the Ethiopian Airlines accident. France’s Airbus, however, received only 380 requests.

Airbus sold 303 units in the first semester of 2018, down one percent compared to the same period in 2017.

Last year was Boeing’s best, as the company booked more than $100 billion in sales, the first in 102 years. Also, Boeing’s shares jumped 31 percent throughout 2018, making it the best performer at Dow Jones.

But will the Lion Air’s and the Ethiopian Airlines’ crashes harm Boeing’s business given its long history and dominance of the market? Some analysts predict that two air accidents in the last five months involving the Boeing 737 MAX will not necessarily damage the Chicago-based aircraft maker’s business, as Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group, told the New York Times.

“I’ve learned from bitter experience not to look at the stock prices in the aftermath of a crash,” he said. “It’s just all over the place.”

In regards to the size of the problem at Boeing, Aboulafia added, “If they have to implement a very rapid series of any kind of modification or training procedures, A) they have the resources and B) relative to their revenue base, it’s not going to be a disaster.”

Ethiopian Airlines also said it will continue its partnership with Boeing, despite the worldwide grounding. Before the accident, the air carrier had a positive safety record.

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Yasmeen Rasidi

Yasmeen is a writer and political science graduate of the National University, Jakarta. She covers a variety of topics for Citizen Truth including the Asia and Pacific region, international conflicts and press freedom issues. Yasmeen had worked for Xinhua Indonesia and GeoStrategist previously. She writes from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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