Comac gaining ground on aircraft

Updated: 2011-12-30 08:51

By Jin Zhuanglong (China Daily)

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Comac gaining ground on aircraft

Company president says C919 gives nation new chance to innovate

Areal-sized demo mock-up of C919 trunkliner's forward fuselage was unveiled on the 49th Paris Air Show on June 20.

This was the first time that the C919, a domestically made large single-aisle jet, made its international debut. It has drawn great attention from visitors, media and aircraft manufacturers.

In 2011, China has stepped forward to convince airlines that it can make safe aircraft after Boeing and Airbus.

However, this does not mark a potential competition with other major players in this field as many other people think.

What the C919 and its manufacturer, the Shanghai-based Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd (Comac), are seeking is cooperation.

The C919 has just completed the preliminary design and entered the detailed design phase in Shanghai. Experts are still researching crucial technologies, but if the project goes smoothly, the C919 will first take flight in 2014, with the first delivery two years later.

Even though 215 order commitments have been placed, which shows the strong market confidence toward this project, the C919 still has a long way to go before we can seriously talk about "competition".

In this highly competitive environment, more and more aircraft manufacturers have attached great importance to the Chinese market, which poses great pressure on Chinese companies.

After nearly 100 years of development, the civil aircraft industry is still a knowledge-intensive, technology-centered and capital-driven industry. Big companies have become well-versed in certain fields. For example, Canada's Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer are outstanding in making regional jets.

But the market still has huge potential for development. In a recently published 20-year industry forecast, Comac predicts the revenue passenger kilometers will increase by 4.9 percent every year. In 2030, the global fleet will increase to 36,000 planes, which more than doubles the current fleet of 17,600. About 4,700 of the new aircraft, valued at about $500 billion, are likely to be delivered to Chinese carriers, which are expected to fly 15 percent of the world's total compared with 9 percent today.

What's more, the boom of civil aviation transportation - such as the expansion of airports in China - the growing quantity of orders around the world and the growth of business and leisure travel has stimulated the demand of more types of aircraft.

Chinese aircraft companies should grasp current opportunities. They have to prove the worthiness of Chinese jets, overcome the skepticism of safety issues and show clients around the world that Chinese jets have more advantages than just lower prices.

Before the establishment of Comac in 2008, China looked into domestically made commercial aircraft. Now with the C919, the aviation industry has a fresh start at another attempt to become successful.

During the creation of the ARJ21 and C919, Comac explored and preliminary formed a business model for China's civil aircraft industry. The model is based on the cooperation of airframer and suppliers. For example, Comac is in charge of the C919's aircraft design, assembling and manufacturing, research and development, marketing as well as the aircraft flight test. Suppliers will provide engines or avionics. The C919 team chose nine aerostructure suppliers in China, 17 international system providers and 141 materials and standard parts suppliers globally. Led by Comac, a complete industry consisting of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China and other players from home and abroad has gradually formed.

What's more, China's civil aircraft industry has a new opportunity to enhance the research and development of core technologies. To ensure the steady progress of different aircraft projects, a cluster of research and development centers, final assembly and manufacturing centers, customer service centers and the Beijing Aeronautical Science & Technology Research Institute have been designed and constructed in Shanghai and Beijing since the establishment of Comac in 2008. With the C919 project entering the crucial detailed design and engineering development phases, these centers will gradually be used. And they will definitely benefit from the long-term development of the whole industry.

At the same time, practical experiences will promote the academic development of relevant fields and majors, which will provide backup technological and talent support.

For further progress, I think the whole industry in China should be more market-oriented. During the preliminary design phase of the C919, the market and the preferences of passengers were investigated to create guidelines for the C919.

For example, the windows are larger so passengers can see outside more easily; the illuminating system has different modes, such as cafeteria mode, creating a tailored service; air vents on the sidewalls of the cabin can open to introduce more fresh air; and the plane is equipped with an entertainment system, Wi-Fi and a mobile communication service.

Advanced avionics, engines and composites were also adopted. The weight of C919 aircraft will be 2 percent less than existing same-class aircraft, which lowers the direct operating cost by more than 10 percent. Also, the nitrogen oxides emissions will be 50 percent lower than the standards set in place by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

The C919 is still a baby that needs nutrition and care that will require help from the whole industry.

First, the push for low-carbon economy will influence the civil aviation industry. In the near future, we will witness the charge for carbon emissions, which will definitely increase the cost.

Second, the rapid growth of high-speed railways and the rising price of oil will put more pressure on airline companies. The changing situation has shifted the focus to innovative technology and comprehensive capability.

The development of the Chinese civil aviation industry is still in its primary stages. We need to concentrate on the research and development of domestically made aircraft, cooperation with international leading aircraft manufacturers as well as an innovative business model. I believe in the next 20 years, China's civil aviation industry will gain more achievement and praise.

The author is president of Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd.