Stakes high in quest to put China's first large commercial jet in the air

Despite having strong support from President Xi Jinping, state owned aircraft maker Comac finds it tough competing with Airbus and Boeing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 June, 2014, 11:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 3:00pm

Four giant banners that read "Sustained effort", "Sustained study", "Sustained hardship" and "Sustained dedication" flutter alongside the national flag at the imposing plant of Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) in Dachang, Shanghai.

They are a sign of how seriously the company takes its mission - to put a large aircraft made in China in the air - which President Xi Jinping has indicated is part of the "Chinese dream".

We have controlled the costs … [we] have a pricing advantage

Xi told Comac officials last month that the country must achieve the goal of creating its own "jumbo jet" at all costs.

"The ability to develop and make a large airplane represents the strength of a country's aviation industry," he said during a visit to the company.

"More importantly, it's a symbol of a country's overall strength and power. A large airplane is the dream of several generations of Chinese."

Despite the firm's sustained efforts, however, and regardless of the political and economic cost of failure, this dream is not one that will be readily realised.

Comac, a state-owned juggernaut, was established in 2008 to assemble a large plane that can compete against the single-aisle aircraft made by global aviation giants Airbus and Boeing.

Longer term, it has plans for a twin-aisle model that can seat up to 400. The ambitious project is part of Beijing's efforts to move the manufacturing sector up the value chain.

Tian Min, Comac's chief financial officer, told reporters last month that the assembly work for the C919, a 168-seat jet, would begin in the second half of this year.

He said the maiden flight would take place late next year. That was the first official acknowledgment of a likely delay in the project.

In 2010, the company said it would redouble its efforts to ensure a test flight this year and that it would start delivering the aircraft to buyers in 2016.

Tian insisted the production of the C919 was on track despite growing suspicions about China's ability to create its own large, single-aisle aircraft. Beijing announced in 2007 it would take 90 months for the country to produce such a jet.

As Comac was officially set up in 2008, a one-year delay of the maiden flight was in line with the 90-month schedule, Tian said.

Nonetheless, industry officials are sceptical. Comac's 90-seat regional jet, the ARJ21, made its first flight in 2008, but it took more than five years to complete the certification process. The first ARJ21 has yet to be delivered to buyers.

As the country lacked the core technologies for the key parts and systems for large jets, domestic manufacturers were encouraged to set up joint ventures with global industry leaders such as General Electric to supply them to Comac.

According to Beijing's script, the foreign companies could profit from the joint venture supply deals with 

Comac, while the country would have access to the key technologies through the tie-ups.

However, people familiar with the industry said cooperation with foreign firms did not appear to be smooth, since they were reluctant to transfer key technologies to their Chinese partners.

A delayed delivery of the C919 could mean a multibillion-dollar loss of business for Comac because of competition from international rivals.

Mainland airlines are expected to buy 5,000 jets worth about US$560 billion in the next two decades, Comac said.

The upgraded Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 Max are set to hit the market earlier than the C919.

"Considering the demands from the customers, we tried to make our products more economical," Tian said. "We have effectively controlled the costs, and our jets would have a pricing advantage over their rivals."

But Tian was tight-lipped on exactly how much a C919 would cost. Comac has secured orders for about 400 of the jets.

Chinese officials have reason to dream of an indigenous airplane. In 1980, the Y-10 aircraft made by the Shanghai Aircraft Factory completed a test flight to Xinjiang and Tibet but the plane was never commercially used.