China’s New Jetliner, the Comac C919, Takes Flight for First Time

China’s New Jetliner, the Comac C919, Takes Flight for First Time

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Planning for the 158-seat C919 began more than a decade ago, but the plane has become a centerpiece of the country’s more recent ambitions to become largely self-sufficient in many high-tech goods and to export them as well. That plan, called Made in China 2025, worries many Western businesses who fear competing against government-supported Chinese companies.

Employees on Thursday in the hangar of the building where a second C919 aircraft is being built. The manufacturer said that it would decide whether the aircraft was ready for large-scale production after building six test planes.

Credit
Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

“We used to believe that it was better to buy than to build, better to rent than to buy,” President Xi Jinping of China told workers during a recent visit here. “We need to spend more on researching and manufacturing our own airliners.”

China’s investment in civilian aircraft manufacturing is enormous. The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, better known as Comac, unveiled the extent of its activities for the first time on Thursday, showing off a complex of more than 110 buildings.

In one of the seven towering gray manufacturing buildings sat the second C919, still being assembled. Workers in dark blue uniforms installed components in the plane’s wings and cargo area, the rattling of their tools echoing through a cavernous space that could accommodate many more aircraft on a production line.

The second C919, coated in green anticorrosion paint and not yet displaying any airline’s colors, will not be ready until September, said Bao Pengli, Comac’s deputy director of project management for manufacturing and final assembly. Only after building six test planes will Comac decide whether it is ready for large-scale production, he said.

Comac says it already has 570 orders from 23 buyers. But those have almost entirely come from Chinese companies and a couple of small overseas air carriers with links to China. A notable exception is an order for 20 planes from General Electric Capital Aviation Services; G.E. is also a big supplier to the C919 program.

The C919 is designed to compete with the Airbus 320 and the Boeing 737, single-aisle planes that are the workhorses of the world’s airlines. For Comac, the plane represents the culmination of decades of work; for Airbus and Boeing, it is a challenge to a profitable duopoly that has endured for decades.

But it is unclear that China can produce aircraft that are as efficient and reliable as even the current generation of Boeings and Airbuses.

The hangar of building where a second C919 aircraft is being built. Comac says it already has 570 orders from 23 buyers.

Credit
Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

“If you have a slight rivet head protrusion, it does affect the air flow,” and that may mean extra fuel consumption, said Martin Craigs, chairman of the Aerospace Forum Asia, a commercial aircraft industry trade association.

China has learned a lot in recent years about how to build single-aisle planes by making many parts for Boeing 737s and by assembling entire A320s for Airbus. But the country’s dream of becoming a competitor in the global market for commercial aircraft started in 1972, when President Nixon visited China in a Boeing 707.

Chinese officials loved the plane and later bought 10 Boeing 707s, as well as 40 spare Pratt & Whitney engines. China to some extent copied the fuselages of the 707 for a small production run of experimental Y-10 planes using the additional engines.

Decades later, those experiences and a fast-developing aviation sector — China has the world’s second-busiest behind the United States — mean there are few questions about the C919’s safety.

Arnold Barnett, the dean of aviation safety statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that China had had only one fatal crash in the past decade, even as its aviation sector expanded. One person has been killed per 70 million passengers boarded in China, compared with one passenger per 25 million boardings in the West, he said.

Gary Moran, the head of Asia aviation insurance at Aon, a large global insurance broker, said that as insurers assessed the risks of a new aircraft like the C919, they were likely to be reassured by the large role that multinationals had played. In addition to the avionics, G.E. has also collaborated on the engines, while Honeywell is providing auxiliary power systems, wheels, brakes, fly-by-wire controls and navigation equipment.

For China, the C919 is just the beginning. Even if the plane proves less fuel-efficient than Western alternatives, the state-controlled airline industry may still be required to buy it, and the Chinese aviation market in the coming years is expected to rival only the American market in size and perhaps surpass it.

The cockpit of a C919 display mock-up. It is unclear that China can produce aircraft that are as efficient and reliable as even the current generation of Boeings and Airbuses.

Credit
Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

And although the plane represents a new challenger for aircraft sales, Airbus and Boeing, increasingly dependent on Chinese airlines for sales as well as on Chinese suppliers for parts, welcomed its arrival.

“The C919 will bring new competition to the market,” Airbus said in a statement. Yukui Wang, a Boeing spokesman, added: “We’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate Comac for the successful development of the C919 airplane.”

Comac is already looking past the C919 to the design and manufacture of a wide-body jet that would compete with larger, more profitable planes like the Boeing 747 and the A340. Steven Lien, the president for Asia at Honeywell’s aerospace division, said that Russia and China were in the final stages of negotiating a plan to jointly design and produce it.

Commercial aircraft often share DNA with military aerospace programs. Boeing 707 siblings like the KC-135 tanker and RC-135 reconnaissance plane are used by the United States Air Force, while Airbus has a sizable military equipment division. China’s aerospace program is under particularly tight government oversight.

Comac, based in Shanghai, is under the direct control of China’s cabinet. The state-owned enterprise that jointly owns Comac and is most closely linked to it is the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, or AVIC, which makes China’s fighters and bombers. It is also G.E.’s joint venture partner in producing sophisticated avionics equipment for the C919. G.E. said in an email that legal agreements protected its intellectual property from misuse.

Honeywell expects $15 billion in sales to the C919 program during its 20 or more years of production. But the company plans to adhere to Western export control regulations in this process, Mr. Lien said.

“We follow them very, very closely,” he said, “and we would never take a shortcut.”

Correction: May 5, 2017

An earlier version of this article incorrectly included a Chinese official among those from the government attending the C919’s first flight. President Xi Jinping was not among them.

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