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First Chinese-built commercial jet targets Airbus-Boeing monopoly

The C919 taking off on its maiden flight on May 5, 2017 REUTERS/Aly Song

China’s first home-grown commercial jet liner took off on its maiden flight in Shanghai on Friday. China’s C919 has a range of about 5,000 kilometres and can transport up to 168 passengers and aims to be a direct competitor of Europe's Airbus 320 and the US's Boeing 737.

In China the flight has been hailed as an immense success.

China’s national television shows the take-off and landing of the C919 live, with cheering on the tarmac and a pilot declaring, “Excellent plane, balanced, I’m very happy, it is a big thing."

China has now entered the exclusive club of countries able to build commercially viable jets, along with the US, Canada, the EU, Russia and Brazil.

Chinese plane to compete with Airbus 05/05/2017 - by Jan van der Made Listen

“The national pride is absolutely enormous,” says Steve Tsang, head of China studies with the School for Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London.

“The fact that the Chinese are now producing a commercial airliner is viable,” he says, noting that Beijing requires China’s aviation companies to buy the craft, which might be seen as a subsidy.

“But even with that subsidy I think it is something that the Chinese will embrace as a major step forward,” Tsang comments.

C919’s manufacturer, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), was established in Shanghai in 2008 and it took 10 years to develop the plane.

For now Beijing’s guideline for aviation companies to “buy Chinese” has resulted in 570 orders for the C919.

“China at the moment is the fastest growing market for airliners,” says Tsang. “So you are talking about potentially hundreds of units of Airbus not being sold in China because of competition by the C919 in the next five to 10 years.”

Airbus fights back

When China's plan to develop its own commercial airliner became known, Airbus was quick to respond. In 2008 it established an assembly line for the production of the A320 in the port city of Tianjin and started producing with a speed of some 15 planes per year.

For the time being the European planemaker does not need to worry.

“You are not going to tell me that the 919 is anywhere near as attractive an airliner for any other non-Chinese major airline to buy,” says Tsang, saying that the new generation of European planes and their American counterparts are reliable and relatively cheap to operate.

“Your regular European or North American airline will still continue to choose between Airbus and Boeing,” he says.

Still, the fact remains that China has built up an aviation industry that is being taken seriously by top multinationals, despite having been a closed society whose politics focused on class struggle and a planned economy as recently as 1978.

China catches up with West

When China opened up in the 80s and 90s and foreign companies flocked into the country, they were required by law to share the latest technology with the Chinese partners in their joint ventures.

Did these companies shoot themselves in the foot by providing the technology that is now being used to compete against them?

“Sooner or later they would have accessed the technology,” says Marc Ivaldi, an economist with the Toulouse School of Economics. “On the other hand, we tend to think that an aircraft is a very complex machine and that you need very sophisticated enterprises to be able to make one. But, in fact, an aircraft is an old story, many things were known and it is relatively easy to enter this market.".

Meanwhile, C919 manufacturer Comac has linked up with Canada’s Bombardier and with Ryan Air, the Irish low-budget airline, to further develop its plan and possibly sell to budget airlines.

It will take a few years before the C919 will be fully ready for China’s domestic market and Airbus and Boeing can still divide China’s market between them until then.

But, if this is the shape of things to come, they will have to work extremely hard to compete with increasingly aggressive Chinese corporations, not only in China but worldwide.