The C919 has found itself in a fascinating and bizarre position to push COMAC onto the World stage as the Boeing 737 MAX crisis unwinds.
China Southern seems to have axed, suspended, paused—or some other word for ‘postponed/canceled’—its order for 64 remaining 737 MAX planes. Today, the carrier operates 26 of the type, all of which have been grounded since March.
So, what hasn’t China Southern canceled? Well, the A32XNEO order they have outstanding—but they need aircraft.
What else do they have on its order books? The carrier placed an order for 20 COMAC C919s (five firm orders, plus 15 options), powered by CFM LEAP 1-C engines.
Thing is, they’re not the only Chinese airline with both 737 MAX and C919 on order. Far from it.
We can also start to assume that the Chinese aviation market is starting to imagine a world with diminished 737 MAX in its system; all the while, they are still one of the—if not the—fastest-growing air travel markets.
Simply put: they need planes.
They were locked into the duopoly, which is never something China likes politically unless a local firm has a seat within the cartel or oligopolistic market.
They were locked in because passenger airliners require a phenomenal amount of skill, resources, and time to develop.
Well, I mentioned it above—you can’t really foreshadow in analytical nonfiction articles.
1,008 little problems for the Duopoly
The C919 is COMAC, but not the COMAC that brought you the ARJ-21. I mean, yes in corporate history they are; but they have evolved.
They were just following a very classical Chinese methodology for doing business. Gain skill with a state-funded project that was never expecting any degree of what the West, or even the Chinese, would define as commercial success learn from every single mistake, and never make them again.
Now, maybe it’s because of how and where I grew up, but there were a lot of children from the People’s Republic of China in my class. Their mothers and fathers would never let them make the same mistake twice—it’s an admirable part of Chinese culture.
LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES! AND DOUBLE CHECK SO YOU DO NOT MAKE THEM AGAIN!
Chinese businesses operate in much the same way. Twenty years ago, we never expected to see Chinese cars for sale in Australia, or really, anywhere outside of China.
China can take a while to ramp up and gain parity with the West, but once they have, it’s never lost.
The C919 currently has a total order book (including options) of 1,008 aircraft—including GECAS.
That’s a big deal.
Western suppliers are also taking this aircraft very seriously. Look at the subcontractors.
Who made the engines? What are the engines? CFM LEAP-1C.
Yup, special nacelle and mount modifications to make it fit the COMAC.
Actually, this needs a subheading.
CFM Involvement is a BIG deal
CFM, in the words of my favorite lady from Trinidad and Tobago, “ain’t missing no meals.”
They supply the engines to the two narrowbodies that own the market. CFM also, as we all know, is half-owned by General Electric (GE).
GE is about as conservative a company as you’d ever see. GE is not about to upset the apple cart with the two largest engine customers in terms of either delivery timing or allowing a competitor to take market share from them unless they smell money.
1,008 aircraft is 2,016 engines, plus spares, and support. That’s not chump change.
CFM is also not an airframer, they can persist as long as someone is buying its engines. CFM doesn’t really need Boeing or Airbus—they just need a customer.
The ‘1C’ designator after the ‘LEAP’ is a paradigm shift in that, despite its very-low cost to adapt to the new airframe, they actually did it. That’s really the thing.
The Safran side of CFM is embroiled, as usual, in French and EU politics – whether or not they are any more or less protectionist than America is not only beyond the scope of this article, but also entirely a matter for the WTO.
Thing is, for the board of CFM to allow the LEAP-1C to be sold, it means that they not only see short-term revenue (with growth potential) from the C919—they see the importance of building a relationship with the Chinese Airframer now, rather than when China may be able to produce indigenous engines.
That alone, even pre Boeing 737 MAX grounding and ensuing weirdness, should signal that the duopoly is at least in the eyes of this business nerd, at risk of becoming an oligopoly.
Wild, I know. Let’s go back to the other suppliers, though. They add phenomenal credibility.
This is a Western-style airliner assembled in China, seriously
Who supplies the avionics? Collins (a division of UTC). Who supplies the flight control systems? Honeywell? Sound familiar?
Who supplies the IFE? Thales. I can keep going. The APU is Honeywell.
Okay, some of these are in discrete partnership with Chinese firms—but still. Headline names that you’d find in pretty much anything but the beat-up things I bash the sky into submission with!
Again, this aircraft was a threat before.
I’ll segue in a second. Just remember that ‘C’ was chosen because Airbus is A, Boeing is B, so… if there is to be a third; it should be COMAC. Right?
An unexpected opportunity
Let’s say I need an airliner, but I can’t get it delivered to me because it’s still being investigated and analyzed, and we have no real idea when it’s coming back.
Let’s say that, according to The Air Current, I can cancel my order for this pumpkin on October 1 and lose nothing.
I still need to expand my fleet, right? Like—I need something that has emissions equal to my competition and also has similar unit costs.
I can’t call Ghost Busters – as much as I may want to.
Who can help me out, and given the way things are done business-wise over there – can probably ramp up at an insane rate, and offer me attractive financing?
COMAC it is!
Okay, wait, that assumes that the FAA and EASA grant the C919 certification of their own – this is true.
Why wouldn’t they?
The C919 is not a radical design by any means. It’s an A320, but not. Okay, it’s an A320neo with a supercritical wing that doesn’t need sharklets.
The dimensions are similar, but it’s not a copy. There is no technology used in this airframe that hasn’t been used by the big two in some manner.
If COMAC can demonstrate appropriate quality control—and there’s no reason for them not to—it’d be very hard for an aircraft like this not to be certified outside of China.
Even if there is push back, China is, well, China. China can use its economic influence to get the CAAs of the world to sign off. Again, that’s assuming the plane is safe.
Thing is, the FAA—as we now know all too well—isn’t focused just on safety. It’s focused on promoting America’s aviation industry.
That sentence there is a potential roadblock.
Thankfully, everyone—even many Americans—have seen the 737 MAX fiasco and have started saying helpful words like “regulatory capture.” If the other CAAs approve the C919, they won’t be able to keep them out for long.
Not that I see American carriers buying them.
Who could buy the C919?
Well, every Chinese airline needs planes. Every Chinese bureaucrat is mad at Boeing. You can see where that’s going.
Then there are many, east-looking African countries that need to rebuild their fleets. LAM, Air Namibia? I’m just hypothesizing.
We’re not going to see this airframe in North America, and not likely in South America either. We might see it show up in Europe, though probably operating for African airlines.
Thing is. China is where the real money is.
If China gets too annoyed with Boeing over the 737 MAX fiasco, they know Airbus is tapped out and they don’t need much of an excuse to buy local.
That’s really all there is to say here.
This is a real plane that everyone needs to take seriously, probably more so now with Boeing’s stumble.