Having built a passenger plane, China must now earn trust of the aviation industry
The Comac C919 is being touted as a rival to jets made by Boeing and Airbus but much work remains on the most crucial issue of all – confidence
The aim of becoming a global aviation player is not the formality it may seem for a country that has developed a manned space programme and built an aircraft carrier. The maiden flight of the narrow-bodied passenger jet, the C919, is a step towards challenging the dominance of Europe’s Airbus and America’s Boeing, even if not yet a serious competitor to their upgraded equivalents, the A320 and 737 respectively. However, to put the road ahead into some perspective, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) is now at about the same development stage as Airbus when its A300 first flew nearly 50 years ago. It took the European giant about another 30 years to match Boeing in terms of aircraft deliveries. And it has to be remembered that China lacks the depth of aviation and engineering expertise that Airbus could draw on from Europe.
A major test for Comac will be whether it can sell enough aircraft to develop a servicing chain that commands the confidence of the global airline industry in its customer support. Service and customer support also produce recurring after-sale revenue from an aircraft for reinvestment in product development.
One of the obstacles to attempts by other industrial economies to develop a competitor to Boeing and Airbus is that they could not rely on markets of comparable size. China argues that it has the market, not only domestically but in extensive regional traffic.
Its strategy may be simple, but crucial to it, and maintenance of safe operations, will be a cost-effective customer support network defined by devolution of decision-making and delegation of authority by centralised, state-owned enterprises.
Comac has shown recognition of the importance of building customer support by recruiting a number of experienced airline and aerospace industry executives, who will supplement China’s highly regarded manufacturing and engineering skills. Hopefully, this also indicates an awareness that transparency, and shared learning from mistakes, is paramount in aviation safety.
China has shown it is prepared to invest heavily in existing technology to pave the way for long-term investments in developing competitive, indigenous technologies. The maiden flight of the C919, a pet project of President Xi Jinping (習近平), is a landmark in the development of China’s own commercial aircraft industry, a goal also personally endorsed by Xi.
Last, but not least for a rising great power, there is a national security angle, following claims in 2002 that China found almost 30 surveillance devices on a newly delivered Boeing 767 intended for use by top state leaders.