Holding pattern

Another big order for Boeing, as Comac counts the cost of more delays

Xi at Boeing

One day, perhaps: Xi at Boeing

As Chinese president Xi Jinping took a tour of the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington on Wednesday he may have been dreaming of the day when China would have something similar of its own.

In May when Xi visited China’s closest equivalent, the China Commercial Aircraft Corporation (Comac), he told employees in Shanghai that a powerful aircraft industry was key to a country becoming a great power.

“In the past, people said we should rent or buy planes instead of making our own. But we have reversed this notion and are investing more money in making our own large aircraft,” he promised.

The challenge is that China needs more aircraft right now and Comac only produces a single variety: a narrow-bodied model which is yet to begin commercial flights.

Wednesday therefore saw a major new order for 300 new jets from Boeing – 250 single-aisle 737s and 50 unspecified widebody aircraft.

They were ordered by a group of Chinese companies, including China Aviation Supplies Holding, ICBC Financial Leasing and China Development Bank Leasing.

It was also agreed that Boeing would open a completion centre for the 737s with Comac, marking the first time it has set up a facility outside the US. (Boeing’s rival Airbus already has an assembly plant in Tianjin.)

Chinese airlines will need to buy more than 6,000 passenger planes in the next 20 years, according to a recent report from Comac. While some of those purchases will come from giants Boeing and Airbus, the longer-term plan is to break their duopoly.

Comac has just announced that it will deliver the first domestically produced passenger jet – the ARJ21, a 90 seater plane – to its launch customer Chengdu Airlines before the end of the year.

The problem: the airline was expecting delivery eight years ago.

Comac says it has received 295 orders for the ARJ21, mainly from domestic airlines and clients in developing countries in Africa and Asia. But the danger is that the delivery timeline is now so far behind schedule that the new aircraft is seen as outdated by its customers before it even gets into service.

Comac’s C919, which is intended to compete with the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320, has also experienced extensive delays, and the date of its own maiden flight was pushed back again recently from late this year to the first half of next.

“That means the C919 will be later, and a technologically inferior product to the re-engineered and improved variants of the 737 and A320 that will enter service in the next two years,” Reuters said.

Frustration at such prolonged delays might be why China has turned to Russia for help in developing its first wide-body jetliner. Speaking at an aviation expo in Beijing last week, Yury Slyusar, the head of Russia’s state-controlled United Aircraft Corp, said the two sides would soon sign a deal to develop a double-aisle aircraft. “The project is developing according to plan. In March of next year we will confirm the design of the plane,” Xinhua quoted Slyusar as saying.

Speaking at the same event, Comac’s Dang Tiehong said Chinese fleet sizes will grow at an average of 5.5% a year and Chinese passenger numbers by 6.8% over the next 20 years. Chinese airlines will spend $800 billion on new planes in that timeframe, of which 773 will be regional jets, 4,195 single-aisle jets and 1,250 dual-aisle, longer-haul aircraft.

The numbers all sound very definitive. But if China’s aerospace bosses can’t get to a point at which they are delivering their new aircraft to customers, all the talk of China’s future as a plane-making giant looks a little premature.

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