Global Economics

Can China Take On Boeing and Airbus?


Despite the mainland's spotty record of building big jets, a new company has been launched to reduce Chinese reliance on Western planes

China hasn't had a good track record building big airplanes. The first Made-in-China big jet was the Shanghai Y-10, which had its maiden flight on Sept. 26, 1980. The 150-seat jet was as big as a Boeing 707 and bore a striking similarity to the American plane. The Y-10 flew 130 times, but the Chinese retired it in 1985 because local airlines refused to purchase it, preferring to buy the more fuel-efficient planes from Boeing (BA) and McDonnell Douglas instead.

Two decades later, the Chinese government is hoping for better luck. At a ceremony in Shanghai on May 11, China unveiled its latest attempt to build a larger jet—or literally "big airplane" in Mandarin—with the launch of the Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (CACC). The company's mandate: assemble jets at home to reduce the nation's reliance on Western-made planes. There's no shortage of demand. The aviation industry conservatively predicts the country will buy 2,800 new airplanes worth $329 billion over the next 20 years to keep up with China's scorching air travel growth (BusinessWeek.com, 12/6/05). "Obviously, China wants to be part of this perceived profitable airplane making business," says Martin Lin, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in China's aerospace group. "But profits will come only when China will be able successfully to capture international markets."

As the country's failure with the Y-10 shows, that is a big "if." Alarmists say that China entering the ring to manufacture big jets could pose a threat to the Boeing and Airbus duopoly down the road (BusinessWeek.com, 3/22/07). Publicly, Boeing and Airbus have sought to downplay any friction, saying they are willing to work together with China to help build its jets. "Boeing recognizes and respects the ambitions of other countries and companies to enter commercial aerospace as large airplane manufacturers," a Boeing spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail. "Boeing will continue its legacy of cooperation with customers and suppliers worldwide."

Fuel and Maintenance Are Key

Industry experts say that fears about China quickly eating Boeing and Airbus' lunch are overblown. For starters, no one knows when the country's jet will be ready. The government has set a goal of having a plane that can seat more than 150 passengers, which is smaller than the jumbo jets made by Boeing and Airbus that seat more than 400 passengers, ready by 2020. But in interviews with the Chinese media, CACC President Jin Zhuanglong declined to be tied to a timetable. China's attempt to build a regional commercial aircraft, the ARJ21, has been delayed because suppliers have not had key systems ready in time. The 70- to 90-seat ARJ21 jet is expected to be delivered next year. To be fair, even Airbus and Boeing's new airplanes have been wracked by delays (BusinessWeek, 4/17/08).

Another big problem: When it comes to building jets, China's low-cost workforce is not all that significant an advantage. True, the country has lower labor costs than, say, Toulouse, France, which is why Airbus is setting up its A320 assembly line in the northeastern Chinese city of Tianjin. But airlines do not buy airplanes based on cost alone. The price tag of an aircraft accounts for only 3% to 5% of the plane's total operating cost over its 20-year lifetime. More important considerations for airlines are fuel and maintenance costs. "Building an aircraft is not even half the battle. Delivering it and supporting it over a lifetime is what really matters," says Martin Craigs, president of Aerospace Forum Asia, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit aerospace supply chain industry association.

And while CACC is going to design primarily for domestic airlines, there is no guarantee that Chinese carriers will purchase the planes if they are not genuinely globally competitive. In the 1990s, McDonnell Douglas had a difficult time selling the MD-80 and MD-90 series aircraft it assembled in Shanghai to Chinese airlines because the planes cost more than what airlines could buy directly from the U.S. Today, most of China's biggest airlines are listed in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and New York, meaning they will be even more likely to base their airplane purchase decisions on earning the best possible returns for their shareholders.

Learning from Failure

To be sure, China's aircraft manufacturers have learned from their past failures. CACC's design teams have already reached out to Chinese airlines to solicit their opinions on the future jets' requirements and performance. But they have not included foreign airlines in the initial round of discussions. "Based on our own experience, we have learned that developing a good plane is not necessarily the most difficult," an Airbus spokesman wrote in an e-mail. "What is most difficult is to get the recognition on the world market not only to develop such a plane but also to deliver and maintain it. This is where collaboration can be helpful."

Tschang is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Beijing bureau.

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