30 May 2017 · 3 min read

China to attempt entry into the widebody market

China & Russia collaborate on rival to the A330 & Boeing 787

On May 22, United Aircraft Corp (UAC) of Russia and Comac from China launched a full scale development project for a commercial widebody aircraft, with the aim of entry into service in 2027. This represents China’s first foray into the widebody market. It is particularly notable because this time China has chosen to collaborate with the Russians, unlike on the C919 narrowbody which it is developing autonomously (albeit with Western technologies). The Russians have more commercial aerospace experience, which when combined by the financial backing of the Chinese government makes a potentially powerful cocktail.

The new company is called China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corp (CRAIC) and has been registered in Shanghai. Guo Bozhi, head of Comac’s widebody programm is the general manager and his UAC counterpart Macim Litinov is his CRAIC deputy.  Engineers from both companies have been working on a widebody concept since 2013 but this announcement signals the start of the formal design phase.

CRAIC will face the same challenges that COMAC has encountered with the C919 narrowbody, a project that is now more three years late (see my previous blog). However, in addition, there is the added complexity that Russia and China have to work out how to co-operate together and initial indications are that relations are tense. The two countries reportedly cannot agree on a name for the aircraft. For the moment its working name is the C929 which was what Comac planned to call a widebody aircraft of its own design before the countries decided to collaborate. The Chinese want C929 to become its permanent name, but as this would mark the aircraft as a Comac product so the Russian’s unsurprisingly disagree. A new joint engineering centre will be built in Moscow next year where engineers from both countries will be based. However, the Chinese are insisting on it having a branch in Shanghai, where the final aircraft will also be assembled.

Global demand for widebody aircraft over the next decade is expected to be led by China. Airbus Global Market Forecast 2016 predicted that 8060 new widebody aircraft will enter service between 2016 – 2035. Whilst this only represents 24% of all new aircraft by number, it is 43% of the market value. It is therefore a logical step for Comac to want to try and take a share of this market and Russia wants to replace its aging Ilyushin Il-96 which first entered service in 1992. Whilst the new aircraft is unlikely to compete well technologically with Airbus and Boeing’s offerings, it will have a guaranteed market in the Chinese and Russian airlines. If it then proves itself in the air, its lower price tag may well in time attract low cost airlines from other countries. For example, following the C919’s successful inaugural flight last month, Ryanair has reiterated that it remains keen on following the prospects of the aircraft.

The C929 project has a long road ahead. No exact target date has been set for delivery, but CRAIC has said development and certification could take up to ten years. Airbus, Boeing and the world’s airlines will of course watch with interest.

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