Russian and Chinese jets take on Boeing and Airbus in this US$3 trillion area

But upstarts face challenges against established manufacturers with worldwide networks in terms of spares and support

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 July, 2016, 8:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 1:55pm

Boeing's 737 Max made its international debut this week at the Farnborough airshow while Airbus was talking up the capabilities of its single-aisle rival the A320neo.

But lurking in the wings are upstarts from China and Russia aiming to take on the US and European giants in the narrowbody plane segment, the most popular type of aircraft for carriers.

Irkut, a subsidiary of the Russian state-controlled United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) launched the MC-21 single-aisle jet last month in a ceremony attended by the country's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

The company attended Farnborough, Europe's biggest airshow, as it looks to drum up international business for its jet, which currently has 175 firm orders but mainly in Russia.

Irkut touted the design of its plane and fuel efficiency as its biggest selling point, giving customers a comfort level similar to wide-bodied aircraft like the Boeing 787.

Irkut's marketing chief touted the MC-21's key features such as low cabin pressure and larger width.

"The 737 has a fuselage width of 3.75 meters. We have more than 4. And this additional space gives you additional personal space. You could increase the cushion width, you could increase the width of the aisle which could speed up the turnaround time because people can pass each other on the plane," Kirill Budaev, vice president of sales and marketing at Irkut, says.

Irkut still needs to take its jet on a test-flight to get approved and it said it hopes to be able to deliver the planes at the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019.

China has also been making a major play in the global aerospace industry. The state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) rolled out its C919 jet in 2015, another single-aisle aircraft to challenge Boeing, Airbus and Irkut.

But it has faced severe delays. Comac originally said its first flight would be conducted in 2014, but this is unlikely to happen until 2017 now. It's another aircraft aimed at appealing to airlines due to its fuel efficiency and greater customer experience within the cabin. The C919 has 517 firm orders so far.

The upstarts will face a number of challenges dislodging Airbus and Boeing however. One major issue is that these are untried aircraft.

"They are coming up against established manufacturers with worldwide networks in terms of spares and support," according to John Strickland, director of JLS Consulting.

"If there is not easy access to spares and support where you are operating that would make airlines more reluctant to buy."

The analyst added that Comac has a big domestic market which it could exploit.

Also airlines will need to find a way to trust Russian and Chinese manufacturers, something that Irkut's sales boss acknowledges.

"We accept we have a negative image to the past and we need to do something. Because of that, we have attracted international suppliers to this program, very well-known and the same as Boeing and Airbus have attracted," Budaev said.

"MC-21 is not a Russian plane, it's an international plane with Russian brains," he added, explaining that the company's international suppliers such as Pratt & Whitney, Zodiac and Honeywell, will help the aircraft get global appeal.

In its annual market forecast, Boeing estimates demand for 39,620 new airplanes over the next 20 years, 28,140 or 71 per cent of which will be single-aisle aircraft. The narrowbody segment will be worth US$3 trillion alone, and while Boeing and Airbus remain dominant, both are aware of the competition.

"What we have to avoid is any kind of hubris as these competitors emerge," says Keith Leverkuhn, vice president and general manager of Boeing's 737 Max project.

"What I would tell you is that I am constantly trying to look around the corner and again, we have to just continually improve...We know we have to get better because this market is so huge that people would just like a little bit of it. Well we don't want anyone to have a little bit of it. So we will continue to be absolutely paranoid about new entrants as well as rigorous in our own continuing journey the customers what they want."

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