Ambitious COMAC takes on aviation giants

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am

Competition in the commercial aircraft market is expected to tighten, as new entrants strive to enter an industry so far dominated by the big two, Boeing and Airbus.

A top executive of United States-based Boeing recently said that the aviation giant would have to take a fresh look at its next generation of narrow-body aircraft as new entrants, such as Canada's Bombardier and the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), get ready to introduce their aircraft to the market.

Trung Ngo, vice-president at Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, says his company has developed a unique product as competition increases in narrow-body aircraft development.

'Our all-new CSeries is setting new standards in technology, seat comfort, fuel efficiency and reduced environmental impact,' he says.

'In addition, the CSeries jetliner is the only new-generation narrow-body aircraft in the 100-to-149-seat segment available today for delivery starting end of 2013.

'This segment has been ignored for too long by our competitors, who offer old and heavy aircraft.

'The time is now to provide an all-new-technology aircraft that will change the game for the industry, and that's exactly what Bombardier is doing with the CSeries.'

According to analysts, the biggest threat to Boeing and Airbus is COMAC, which has an ambitious commitment to develop and manufacture the mainland's first large commercial aircraft.

The project will cost billions of dollars in research and development, according to Martin Craigs, Hong Kong-based president of Aerospace Forum Asia.

Craigs, who has more than 30 years' experience in the aviation industry, says the development of the COMAC C919, a narrow-body airliner with 168 to 190 seats, will place the mainland's technology capabilities under the international spotlight. He adds: 'We have seen what China is capable of achieving over the last 30 years. However, developing a successful commercial aircraft involves a 24/7 commitment to transparent logistics and responsibility to embrace the ground rules of a global player through interfacing with global standards and rules.'

Craigs, who was recently invited to inspect the COMAC manufacturing facilities, says the C919 project is all about capital and ambition woven together with a multitude of expert competences.

The real indication of success will be the average seat price per kilometre measured over a 25-year period. The initial cost of a new C919, which accounts for about 5 per cent of operating costs over the lifespan of the aircraft, is less important than fuel usage, which will be a major factor. The C919 will need to be exceptionally fuel-efficient and highly reliable to compete on a level playing field in the international market.

When COMAC comes into production in 2016, the challenge will be to secure orders from outside China.

'Over the long term, COMAC could become a serious competitor to Airbus and Boeing,' Craigs says. Rising to the growing challenge of COMAC and other market entrants, Airbus recently launched the latest addition to the A320 family - the A320neo - offering new engine options and advances such as new large wing-tip devices called sharklets. The advances will deliver significant fuel savings of up to 15 per cent and additional range capability, while retaining 95 per cent of airframe commonality with the existing A320 family.

'The proven reliability of a product line that meets the requirements of every segment of the market, combined with a process of ongoing innovation, will ensure that Airbus remains the leader in its field,' says Airbus' Asian spokesman.

He says the combination of a wide customer base and high levels of fuel efficiency, which will not be matched by any other products in the size category for the foreseeable future, will ensure that Airbus is well placed to maintain its lead within the market sector.

'For Airbus, the Asia-Pacific region is a core market. The new entrants in the single-aisle segment will definitely lead to increased competition in certain markets. However, as was the case for Airbus, when it started out in the 1970s, the real challenge for new entrants will be to establish global customer bases, effective after-sales support and also to offer a range of products of different sizes that meet the needs of various segments of the market.'

Wang Yukui, Boeing China communications director, says the mainland will require more than 4,300 new commercial airplanes valued at US$480 billion over the next 20 years, with the bulk of new deliveries expected to be for fuel-efficient, single-aisle aircraft.

'We believe the pie is big enough to accommodate new aircraft manufacturers and we welcome additional competition,' he says. 'It encourages everyone to invest in new technologies and look for solutions to meet customers' needs. At Boeing, we focus on customer needs, listen to what they tell us and develop key strategies to improve products and services.'

Industry watchers say recent announcements by Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, that the company could choose to take a clean-sheet approach to the next generation of narrow-body aircraft, could indicate a level of concern about new entrants' aircraft, including those from Bombardier and COMAC.

Wang says improvements being made to Boeing's 737 aircraft will improve performance by reducing carbon emissions by 2 per cent alongside reduced fuel consumption, providing an overall efficiency improvement of 7 per cent compared with existing aircraft.

He says a decision on whether Boeing commits to further re-engineering work on narrow-body aircraft or to develop an entirely new aircraft would be announced later this year.