Aircraft manufacturing is one of the strategically important areas of modern industry, providing transport security and generating large revenues. However, aircraft construction requires a high level of scientific and technological development and a huge financial investment. Therefore, not all countries are able to fully supply themselves with aircraft, whether military or civilian.
The largest and most spacious passenger aircraft are manufactured by the world’s two largest aircraft manufacturers: the European (mostly French) company Airbus and the US company Boeing. These two giants have almost divided the global market for large passenger aircraft. Airliners from other manufacturers, including European and Canadian ones, are inferior to aircraft from these two companies both in size and prominence. Airbus and Boeing are known around the world, exported to hundreds of countries and have even become somewhat of a symbol of civil aviation. It could be said that Boeing has established a monopoly on the production of large passenger aircraft in America, Airbus in Europe, and the two companies together have established a global duopoly.
In recent decades, however, the US and the EU have gained a new global economic competitor, China. The PRC has become the world’s second largest economy, the EU’s main trading partner and a major geopolitical rival to the US. The competition between China and the West continues on all fronts, including the aircraft industry.
The PRC began developing its military aircraft industry in the 1950s, and since then has successfully provided its air force with modern and high-quality combat vehicles. The Chinese aircraft manufacturer AVIC was, as of 2020, the world’s sixth-largest military-industrial company by gross revenue (the five places above were held by Western companies). However, despite such successes in the military aircraft industry, companies from the PRC do not yet play a very prominent role in the global passenger aircraft industry.
Nevertheless, extensive work has been done in recent decades.
In 2008, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), a Chinese state-owned commercial aircraft company, was established. One of the company’s stated aims was to reduce China’s dependence on foreign monopolies of Airbus and Boeing. As early as November 2008, the first flight of the ARJ21 passenger aircraft developed by COMAC carrying up to 115 passengers took place.
Also in 2008, COMAC began work on a new passenger aircraft, the C919 narrow-body (single-aisle, six seats per row) airliner, which, when completed, is expected to carry 150-168 passengers and compete with the Boeing-737.
In 2011, Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair, which was once the cheapest airline in Europe, joined the C919 project. The company, which had more than a hundred Boeing aircraft in its fleet, decided to support the development of its Chinese counterpart. In 2012, Bombardier Aerospace, a Canadian aircraft manufacturer specializing in small business jets and helicopters, also began providing technical and logistical support for the C919 project. It can be concluded that the duopoly between Airbus and Boeing does not suit everyone, even in the West.
In 2012, the media reported that Airbus and Boeing are alarmed by Chinese activity: if these two companies are major suppliers of passenger planes, then China is one of the main consumers of their products. Chinese carriers are steadily increasing both domestic and international traffic, and if China manages to saturate even its own market with domestically manufactured aircraft, this would already be a serious blow to the profits of the European and US aviation giants. Recall that reduction of Chinese civil aviation’s dependence on foreign suppliers was stated by Beijing as one of the country’s main objectives as far back as in 2008. Moreover, it was clear that if COMAC projects were to develop successfully, China would not limit itself to its domestic market. Airbus and Boeing saw an additional risk in the fact that COMAC is a state-owned company, and in case of difficulties in its development it can count on help from the treasury without the fear of going bankrupt, even if at first its operations are loss-making.
In 2017, the test version of the aforementioned C919 narrow-body airliner made its maiden flight.
In 2018, although there was still a long wait for the first commercial deliveries of the C919, there were already more than a thousand preliminary agreements and more than three hundred orders placed for the aircraft, as expected, mostly from Chinese companies.
And in 2019, the media reported that four people had been arrested in the US on charges of industrial espionage in favor of China. As always, when the PRC starts to develop some high-tech field, the West suspects it of stealing its intellectual property. According to the prosecution, Chinese intelligence agencies and hackers stole data from Ametek, Capstone Turbine, GE Aviation and others to use in the C919 project. Two of those arrested are reportedly Chinese nationals. One is an officer in the Chinese Ministry of State Security and the other is a high-level IT specialist. Whether the US suspicions and arrests are justified or not, it is clear that the C919 project is under the scrutiny of the West.
In 2020 the design of the airliner was finally approved and in 2020-2021 a test version of the C919 was flight tested in the cold conditions of China’s Inner Mongolia.
In May 2022, the media reported another flight test of the C919, which took place in Shanghai. The test vehicle was already bearing the logo of the Chinese carrier OTT Airlines, which will operate the aircraft after the tests are completed. Thus, 2022 should be the year C919 commercial deliveries commence and mark the near end of the Airbus-Boeing duopoly.
By 2035, COMAC plans to become the third largest operator in China’s market for narrow-body aircraft and the fifth largest globally, with its C919. By 2042, the plan is to sell 2,000 C919s. This is an ambitious plan; however, the previous plan, to bring the C919 project to the commercial production phase, was delivered by COMAC on time. It can be assumed that the rest of its plans will also be successfully realized by COMAC, supported by the huge industrial and financial capabilities of the PRC.
Petr Konovalov, a political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.