Runway model

C919 goes on display, but yet to take off

A visitor walks past a model of a COMAC C919 aircraft at the Singapore Airshow

Drole de coincidence? (a funny coincidence).” Such was the reaction of the French press to the unveiling of China’s first homegrown passenger jet on the same day that French President Francois Hollande touched down in China to discuss climate change last week.

Toulouse-based Airbus is at the pinnacle of French aerospace, an industry in which the Chinese have long harboured ambitions to break its passenger jet duopoly with America’s Boeing.

Over the past decade, Chinese manufacturers have been able to move up the value chain in high-speed rail networks and bullet-train rolling stock. But are they about to follow suit in the airline industry?

The Western press says no, at least not yet, although Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al Baker told CNBC that he hopes the day is coming.

“There’s nothing wrong with buying Chinese. You use an iPhone, which is made in China. Designed by someone else but made in China,” he told the news channel. “I think it would be good for this duopoly to be broken.”

As most newspapers have been reporting, the new aircraft, which is called the C919, may have been made in China but more than 50% of the parts are foreign-produced. The LEAP-IC engine has been developed by CFM International, a joint venture between France’s SNECMA and America’s GE Aviation, for instance, while the electrical systems and landing gear are from Honeywell.

According to the Global Times, the single-aisle jet will have 158 to 174 seats and a flight range of 5,555km. First commissioned in 2008, the new model is being built by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), a state-owned enterprise. It is currently a year behind schedule, with a maiden flight scheduled for next year and entry into commercial service envisaged for 2018 at the earliest.

Another smaller aircraft made by Comac called the ARJ-21 is scheduled to go into commercial operation with Chengdu Airlines next year. More than eight years late, it will probably be obsolete the day it enters service, aviation analysts have warned. But Comac doesn’t seem disheartened and it is expected to start working with Russia’s United Aircraft Corp on a wide-body passenger jet (two aisles) by the end of this year.

The rise of the (now merged) railway giants CNR Corp and CSR Corp has demonstrated that the Chinese can turn technology transfers to their advantage and create the kind of sophisticated production clusters needed to make aircraft to the requisite standards.

However, as The Economist points out, it takes a long time to establish the kind of safety record that Boeing and Airbus command. And while China’s civil aviation authority may certify the C919 as safe to operate, the US Federal Aviation Authority and the European Aviation Safety Agency may take longer to follow suit. Passengers might also take more convincing to get on Chinese-made aircraft, (a defensive Global Times took issue with its own citizens for trashing the C919 on social media for the same reasons).

Some netizens have been saying that they have no intention of flying on a Chinese plane, with “Let the nation’s leaders fly with it first” a common refrain.

No one is going to be press-ganged onto the C919 for patriotic purposes, the newspaper insisted, calling instead for China’s efforts to upgrade its technological skills to be applauded.

“If China cannot make big aircraft then its modernisation drive will have failed,” it concluded. The country’s civil aviation chief Li Jiaxiang agreed: “China’s air transport industry cannot completely rely on imports. A great nation must have its own large commercial aircraft.”

China News Service has also quoted a number of Comac employees as saying that the venture has symbolic importance for China’s ambitions for an innovation-led economy. They also played down suggestions that the aircraft isn’t really a made-in-China undertaking. Chief engineer Wu Guanghui told the wire service: “Comac comes up with the requirements for the suppliers to meet. We might have made use of global resources, but we integrate and control the technology ourselves.”

The Chinese are also talking about their homegrown tech breakthroughs, like improvements in cabin air filtration. China News Service says Tianjin University has designed a new filtration system that will make the cabin air 20% fresher than the global average.

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