PARIS -- The sheer size of its home market and the infusion of advanced technology from Russia could elevate China's state-owned aircraft manufacturer to a serious rival for industry leaders Airbus and Boeing in the coming decades.
China kept a low profile during this year's International Paris Air Show, which was held near here from June 19 until Sunday. While France's Airbus and Boeing of the U.S. drew attention with glitzy news conferences, Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China did not even display actual aircraft, or make any major announcements.
Behind the scenes, however, the aircraft maker commonly known as Comac is working toward narrowing the gap with the two industry giants by leveraging the huge demand in its domestic market. And the recent agreement with a Russian state-owned commercial aerospace company likely will further fuel China's rise in the global jetliner market.
Big friendly skies
Comac has been developing commercial jets at a rapid pace. The ARJ21, a regional jet with a 70-to-90-seat capacity, has already gone into service. In order to sell the plane to foreign air carriers, the company needs to obtain aircraft certifications from various civil aviation authorities. But the tough certification processes in regions such as the U.S. and the European Union are not required for the airplane's use in domestic routes inside China.
This is a great advantage, since demand for passenger jets in China is forecast to reach several thousand over the next two decades. Comac likely will be able to compete fairly well against Airbus and Boeing by simply dominating in its home market alone.
The Chinese company's booth at the Paris air show was quiet, attracting only a small number of visitors. This reporter visited there several times, but the man at the reception told me apologetically at each visit that no news conferences were planned.
One of the models shown at the booth was a 160-seat jetliner, called the C919. Its brochure describes the aircraft as a single-aisle jet that can compete squarely with foreign rivals. It is apparent that the C919 was designed with the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737 MAX -- two highly popular jet planes among low-cost carriers -- in mind. Leveraging its relatively low price, Comac has so far secured orders for 600 of the aircraft from China's domestic carriers and others.
Major aircraft manufacturers around the globe all anticipate sharp growth in the Chinese market over the next 20 years. Attracted by what many believe will be an epoch-making pace of growth, China is the top priority for most aerospace companies today, and Airbus and Boeing are no exception. They have set up operations in the East Asian country, including plants for installing interiors and adding finishing touches to airplanes before their delivery.
New force to be reckoned with
But Comac is not sitting idly by while rivals make inroads. It has revealed a project to develop a midsize wide-body passenger jet, named the C929. With a cabin large enough for two aisles and 280 seats, and a maximum flying distance of 12,000km, this aircraft will be a direct competitor to the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350 XWB.
The project has also been drawing attention because it will be a combined effort with Russia, with the two countries establishing a joint venture in Shanghai to turn the aircraft into a reality. It looks to be a win-win project for both nations, since China will be able to access Russia's advanced aviation technologies born out of its development of military aircraft, while Russia will be able to tap China's huge market.
Comac may be significantly behind Airbus and Boeing right now. But with the backing of Russia, the Chinese aircraft maker may emerge as a significant challenger to the two giants in just a decade or so.