With the C919, China's aircraft makers have taken the first step into the competitive global aviation market
China has set itself an ambitious target with its first large passenger jet, the C919. The state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) aims to take on the virtual global duopoly of Airbus and Boeing with the medium-range, single-aisle plane. Being able to produce aircraft puts a country on the high-technology map, but it will move dramatically up the industrial value chain if it can carve out an international market. The plane's manufacture is an important development for the Chinese aviation industry and could be equally significant for the Made in China brand.
The C919 can seat up to 175 passengers and has a maximum range of 5,500km, making it a competitor to Airbus' 320 and Boeing's 737. Although the plane was domestically developed and assembled, 16 foreign companies provided core components, a standard practice in the aviation industry. China, for example, last year provided US$482 million in parts for American aircraft manufacturers, Boeing among them. But that was a small amount compared to Japan and Mexico, showing how much work has to be done to attain global aims.
Comac took seven years to get the C919 from conception to being shown publicly in Shanghai last week and it will not be supplied to buyers until 2019, pending the success of tests beginning next year. Even then, it will have to meet overseas safety standards before foreign customers can take delivery. Comac's small jet, the ARJ21, highlights the challenges; under development since 2002, delays meant deliveries were only made this year and US certificates have still to be awarded.
But Comac is thinking big and is already in talks with a Russian firm to jointly develop a wide-bodied jet. Domestically, the push makes sense, with most of the 2,218 medium and large-sized planes in Chinese skies having been manufactured overseas. China's aviation industry is experiencing huge growth, with Boeing predicting a further 5,500 aircraft will be needed in the next two decades. In the past month alone, 430 planes were ordered during President Xi Jinping's trip to the US and German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Beijing. Aircraft production involves high capital costs, the need for substantial industrial capacity and technological know-how. China has overcome these with the C919, but significant challenges lie ahead if it is to succeed in the global aviation market. The early placement of 517 orders, some from airlines in Germany and Thailand, boosts hopes.