As Boeing and Airbus grapple with problems from global recession to manufacturing glitches, a possible longer-term worry looms: China’s ambition to compete in the aerospace business.
Beijing has declared its goal to manufacture large passenger jets with more than 150 seats and freighters capable of handling over 100 tons of cargo, with the explicit aim of taking on Airbus and Boeing.
To underline China’s progress, government-backed Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) unveiled a model of its C919 aircraft at the Asian Aerospace Expo in Hong Kong this week.
The plane will carry at least 150 passengers and is due to fly in 2014.
"In the long run, COMAC aims to become one of the big three in the world to compete with Boeing and Airbus," said Chen Jin, general manager of COMAC’s sales and marketing department.
China faces stiff competition and a host of technical barriers. And that’s not to mention time and cost.
Martin Craigs, president of Aerospace Forum Asia, an industry association, said, "China has the ambition and the financial resources to take on this project, but this will be longer and potentially more expensive than delivering the Olympics."
To date, COMAC has sold few planes overseas. It has more than 210 orders for its ARJ21 regional jet, but these are mostly from domestic customers. The only foreign buyer is General Electric’s aircraft leasing arm, which has ordered 5 jets.
There are no booked orders for the C919, and some in the industry doubt the plane will be attractive to buyers.
One industry source, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said, "When airlines buy a plane, they will look at the future value of the aircraft and the manufacturer’s past record. It’s not just competitive pricing alone that would persuade international customers to buy a China-made C919. Building an aircraft and making it fly is basically quite easy, but making its operating costs the same or better than Boeing’s and Airbus’s planes is a big challenge."
China, according to Boeing, holds one trump card – a massive domestic market that is expected to create demand for 3,700 airliners over the next 20 years.
Airwise reports that when asked whether COMAC can become one of the top three aircraft makers, Robert Laird, a Boeing senior vice president, seemed unconcerned. He said, most perceptively, "Thirty years ago, people were asking the same question about Airbus, so you never know. But you also have to mention all of those who have gone out of the business, such as Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas and Grumman."