Nation’s plane makers have what it takes to fly high
There is every reason to believe that Chinese aircraft can be a match for Boeing and Airbus in the booming market for passenger jets
The oohs and aahs at the biennial national air show in Zhuhai were for an overflight of two Chengdu J-20 stealth fighters, roaring proof of the nation’s rising military might. There was no slow fly-by or detailing of capabilities, though, leaving questions as to whether the technology gap with the United States had been equalled, narrowed or eclipsed. But the real strength perhaps lay in what was not on display, a 168-seat passenger plane due for testing that could potentially rival the dominance of the commercial market titans, Airbus and Boeing. There is room for such competition and China is well placed to provide it.
No military is likely to be forthcoming about the specifics of its latest warplane. Putting the J-20 on show at the nation’s biggest meeting of aircraft makers and buyers before it was in full service was a change of tactics, though. But there were other craft along with weapons systems and drones, among them what was claimed to be the biggest amphibious plane in production, the AG600. Ambitions to enter the commercial passenger jet market were on display with a model of a wide-bodied plane being jointly developed by the state-owned Comac and Russia’s UAC.
Airbus and Boeing dominate the market for wide- and narrow-bodied jets and developing new planes is a years-long process that involves the highest standards and intensive testing. It is for those reasons that China’s planned narrow-body entry, Comac’s C919, is three years behind schedule; the first test flight is likely in coming months or next year and the company announced at the show that delivery of the first of the 570 orders so far taken would be in 2018. But the outlook for the global industry, and particularly China’s, is bright, with Comac predicting that over the next 20 years, almost 40,000 new aircraft would be delivered globally with 6,865 going to the domestic market.
Comac is also behind China’s first locally built regional jet, the ARJ-21, which can seat up to 105 passengers. But the lucrative mid-range market has the most potential, with expectations for 2,500 aircraft globally to 2035. Taking on the Airbus 320 and Boeing 737 will involve producing planes with a reputation for safety, reliability and comfort.
China has the means and ability, though, and its cautious approach to plane-making shows that; the ARJ-20 was a decade in the making. Using high-quality components and parts, and with technological advances, care and patience, there is every reason for Chinese firms to be a match and more for competitors.