China’s domestic airlines have been major buyers of large passenger aircraft from Airbus and Boeing but the Western manufacturers shouldn’t lose sleep over China’s ambitions in the market, according to analysts.
This is at least the third attempt by the Chinese to build a commercial passenger aircraft that can successfully compete with Western manufacturers.
“It’s like watching a competitor creep up on you at a snail’s pace and not necessarily moving in a straight line,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Virginia-based industry consultancy Teal Group.
Last Friday, a 158-seat jetliner built by the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China took its maiden flight from Shanghai. The Chinese press hailed the flight of the so-called C919 passenger aircraft as a sign of the country’s growing influence and manufacturing prowess, though experts say it still faces significant hurdles.
The C919 is a narrow-body twinjet similar in size to Boeing’s 737 or the Airbus A320. The Chinese passenger jet has been under development since 2008, and its maiden flight was about three years behind schedule.
“There’s an expectation of reliability in the components, but the $64,000 question is the quality of the assembly [on the C919],” said Moody’s analyst Jonathan Root.
China has been trying to break into the commercial jetliner business for decades.
The Chinese developed a narrow-body jet known as the Y-10 in the 1970s, though it was considered a Boeing 707 knockoff. Then in 2008 China’s regional jet, known as the ARJ21 — featuring up to 90 seats — made its maiden flight and last June began commercial operations.
“If the Chinese were doing anything except what they’re doing I think the Western manufacturers would be terrified,” said Aboulafia. “They are taking a convoluted and at times a counterproductive approach to developing this industry.”
Aboulafia believes there are two “fundamental” mistakes the Chinese made in developing the C919.
First, he believes the heavy hand of a state-owned enterprise is the wrong approach to cracking into the global commercial aircraft business. Second, he maintains that partnering with Western equipment manufacturers under preconditions such as a requirement of Chinese manufacturing will add risk and ultimately not bring the most current technology, due to intellectual property concerns.
“Basically, they’re telling them they have no intellectual property protection,” said Aboulafia. “This means you have Western manufacturers sometimes showing up with the ‘latest and best’ from 1985.”
CNBC reached out to GE and Honeywell for comment.
According to reports, the C919 secured at least 570 orders from Air China and several other Chinese-based carriers as well as a handful of foreign airlines. The Chinese previously stated that they intended to sell more than 2,000 of the aircraft over two decades after the jet entered into service.
Analysts say major Western carriers are likely to be hesitant to switch to a Chinese plane solely to save costs.
“If I’m running a fleet for a U.S. airline or a European airline, I’m going to want to observe the reliability of the airplane — its efficacy in service, its operating profile, its reliability and so on,” said Root. “I think that would have to take a number of years being in service in order for me to consider inducting that aircraft into the fleet.”
The C919 received a flight permit last month from the Civil Aviation Administration of China. It still requires certification from U.S. and EU safety agencies to fly in those markets.
Even so, looking out five to 10 years from now the Moody’s analyst said he believes the established airlines will stick with Boeing and Airbus rather than the C919.
“From our perspective, it’s a long time away before it might become a risk,” said Root.
If the C919 does take off in terms of sales, however, Boeing could potentially see its China business start to decline.
The strongest demand for Boeing’s commercial planes is for its narrow-body models.
In October, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told analysts on the company’s earnings call that it sees China as “a $1 trillion market opportunity” in terms of commercial planes over the next 20 years.
Boeing’s total commercial order book had just over 5,700 planes through April, with the Asia market identified as having about 1,300 planes and China having 323. There are about 1,000 planes in Boeing’s backlog that are not identified, so it’s possible a portion of those are also for the Chinese market.
Watch: Phil LeBeau reports on China’s first domestic plane