The Commerical Aircraft Company of China, better known as COMAC, has their new C919 aircraft on track for certification in 2021. The C919 is sized to compete with the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families, and will use engines made by U.S.-based General Electric. Boeing and Airbus have dominated sales for these-size aircraft for decades, so fans of competition might think that a new, modern aircraft designed and made in China will shake things up somewhat.
But, as John Newhouse described several decades ago in his book The Sporty Game, betting on a new aircraft is fraught with risk, and that risk is even greater when competing in a size category with two very strong and proven models.
China is a large aviation market, with many large cities and a huge overall population. Just after the pandemic hit, China officially became the world’s largest aviation market as U.S. carriers drastically cut back on capacity. Even when the U.S. bounces back fully, China will continue to grow and undoubtedly stay the largest for the foreseeable future. China’s commercial air fleet numbers close to 4,000 today, compared to over 7.500 in the U.S., but fleet size doesn’t tell the whole story. With this size of a market, and other large aviation markets in Asia nearby, the idea of China-produced commercial aircraft is not crazy at all. In fact, that is why Airbus started assembling their popular A320 aircraft in Tianjin, China. Boeing is also well established there, with over 50% of the planes flying in China being made by Boeing.
What Boeing and Airbus have, that will take COMAC decades, if ever, to develop, is a worldwide network of knowledge, people and support for their products. If an A320 or 737 lands in almost any city on the planet, there is likely good ability to get it serviced and get parts if needed. This provides enormous support for airline operators, who can’t afford to have an aircraft trapped for days due to lack of mechanics or lack of spare parts. This ability comes from having a large installed base of equipment on every populated continent.
A good lesson on this was learned the hard way by Bombardier when they designed and started to manufacture their C-Series aircraft. This aircraft represented the first new mid-sized single-aisle aircraft developed in almost 30 years, given that it came from a sheet of paper rather than an evolution of earlier designs as Airbus and Boeing have used. Despite being a truly excellent mechanical and aerodynamic design, with modern production and sustainability ideas built in, the plane was very difficult to sell. New airplanes often get support from the aircraft leasing business, who place orders to lease out to airlines around the world. I spoke with an executive at the time Bombardier was struggling with sales and mentioned that I knew of several airlines who would be excited about leasing the plane. He told me bluntly that “the problem is not the first lease, it is the second lease.” What he meant, of course, is that without a large installed base he might be “stuck” with the plane when its first lease ended as he could not be sure who else might step up. Lessors take little risk with this with Boeing or Airbus products, since they have a ready market from almost every airline in the world. Not long after that conversation, Airbus bought the C-Series product line, renamed the plane the A220, and will produce it not only in Canada but also in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the plane has sold well to many airlines that wouldn’t take the risk from Bombardier without a worldwide support network.
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The C919 is likely to be a serviceable, if not particularly exciting, competitor in the most popular size category for commercial aircraft. China has ways to ensure that carriers buy and operate the plane in ways the rest of the world doesn’t, so it was no surprise when China Eastern Airlines made the first official order for the C919, even though it was for a modest five units. Certification of the C919 to fly outside of China, by other Asian and European regulators, and ultimately the Federal Aviation Administration, is still a long way away. For these many good reasons, this is a plane that most of the world outside China will not see or fly on with any regularity. This doesn’t mean failure for COMAC, however. It just means for the next decade or more, Airbus and Boeing are going to be very hard to beat at this sporty game.