Triumph of Chinese Engineering or Western Retread?

This week’s maiden flight of the C919, the mid-range passenger jetliner built by Chinese government-owned airplane manufacturer COMAC, was hailed by Chinese broadsheets as the dawn of a new era of Chinese competitiveness in the world airliner industry. The utilitarian-looking airplane, a sort of franken-craft of U.S. and European airframe parts and jet engines pieced together with in-country practical engineering, is COMAC’s second entry into the highly competitive airliner market. The provenance of the majority of its design makes the Chinese government’s propaganda of auspiciousness somewhat suspect.

COMAC’s first entry into the airliner market was the regional jet model ARJ21. Supposedly buoyed by an order backlog of three hundred airframes, COMAC has only managed to deliver two prototypes to a subsidiary of Chinese operator Sichuan Airlines. Sichuan currently only operates French aircraft maker Airbus’ airliners. Perhaps a telling indicator of the fragility of COMAC’s ARJ21 is the fact that most of its backlog is by Chinese operators, with a small pay-to-play order by engine manufacturer General Electric buried in the delivery schedule. Worldwide regional aircraft deliveries are currently dominated by Canada’s Bombadier and Brazil’s Embraer. New entrant Mitsubishi (Japan) has a similar claimed backlog as COMAC, with no deliveries other than prototypes.

COMAC’s plans for the C919 are considerably more ambitious than that for the ARJ21. Designed to compete with the Airbus A320 and U.S. manufacturer Boeing’s 737, COMAC has claimed a backlog of 566 airframes. However, like that of the ARJ21, most orders are from Chinese operators, with another pay-to-play order from General Electric. Delivery of the first airframe to an operator is now expected to be in 2020, twelve years from the start of initial development in 2008.

So is the C919 a technological marvel? Or is it a copy of the A320, the 737, or even the venerable 707? Given China’s checkered history in bootstrapping its industries with borrowed technology, cheap capital, and plentiful inexpensive but adaptive labor, the answer is that it is probably a little of both. Still, with a projected price of $50 million per airframe, a figure comparable to the prices paid for Airbus and Boeing airframes after discounting, it is hard to see how the C919 will do little more than underpin Beijing’s efforts to reduce imports of foreign airframes. Since the Chinese government can’t buy Embraer, Bombadier, Boeing, or Airbus, which is their more recently preferred manner of gaining entry into industries by leveraging their massive foreign currency reserves, the C919 will have to do. After all, there is always the patriotic angle to harp on, if nothing else.

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