Opinion: Airbus and Boeing Need to Be Wary of Comac

An ARJ21 aircraft (Photo: 3GO*CHN-405/mjordan_6 [CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL 1.2])

Recently it was announced that the three largest state-owned Chinese carriers have placed orders for the Chinese manufactured Comac ARJ21-700. The 90 seater single aisle aircraft are to be used by Air China, China Southern, and China Eastern primarily as capacity expansion and feeder flights.

This is the first major order for the Comac ARJ21. The aircraft is essentially a poorly designed copy cat of a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 which were at one time produced in China. The aircraft has considerable issues such as cracking of wings and various wiring and avionics issues.

It appears that the aircraft was developed using production tooling leftover from MD-80 production which was never returned to McDonnell Douglas. It is outdated in design, avionics, and more. Many immediately dismiss the aircraft as something that isn’t viable, but this aircraft wasn’t built to be viable. It’s part of the Chinese strategy to develop its domestic aircraft manufacturing industry.

The Comac built C919 is another clone of a popular aircraft, keen eyed observers will notice it looks oddly like a particular single aisle Airbus aircraft. This aircraft also isn’t that viable, but it shows that the Chinese have taken another step forward in aircraft manufacturing.

Airbus and Boeing Rolling Over

Airbus and Boeing are head over heels trying to penetrate a huge aviation market. They are offering the world to China to be able to get the government’s blessing so airlines will purchase their aircraft. However, the strategy seems considerably short sighted.

It is painfully obvious that the only reason the ARJ21 orders came about is because the Chinese government told its state-run airlines to purchase the aircraft. The government at the end of the day makes these decisions and in light of the ever increasing trade war and Chinese focus on domestic development of products it is highly unlikely that Boeing and Airbus will have a future in China after a few decades.

The increased focus on domestic production is going to incentivize the Chinese aircraft manufacturing industry to develop aircraft faster. Boeing and Airbus are even helping out with this.

Airbus agreed to create an assembly plant for the Airbus A320 in China in a bid to win Chinese orders. Either Airbus is oblivious to the fact that they shot themselves in the foot or perhaps they don’t care. The assembly plant is going to provide Chinese workers with technical hands-on experience when it comes to some of the most complex and intricate parts of aircraft manufacturing.

Boeing has opened up a facility for finishing the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in China as well.

Airbus and Boeing need to realize that the gravy train has a finite end date and as soon as Chinese aircraft manufacturers are able to successfully replicate Western aircraft the government is going to require domestic carriers to prioritize purchase of those aircraft over Boeing and Airbus.

Boeing expects to sell thousands of new planes to China over the next twenty years but what will happen after that? A key goal for the “Made In China 2025” plan created by the government is to develop a solid domestic aircraft manufacturing industry.

Hemal Gosai

Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.
Hemal Gosai