LONDON — Designing and producing a modern airliner is one of the most demanding technological exercises known to man.
The sheer complexity of creating a new passenger aircraft goes well beyond the purely technical aspects; with the possible exception of the nuclear industry, no other enterprise is so hedged about with safety regulations. Few other developments cost so much or have such lengthy gestation periods.
And even the constructors that have been at it longest can still get it wrong. The Airbus A380’s wiring loom problems and Boeing’s outsourcing nightmares with the 787 spring to mind. Both projects recovered, but the episodes caused a lot of sleepless nights among the OEMs’ executives.
So, the agreement signed in late June between Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) president Yuri Slyusar and Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) chairman Jin Zhuanglong to establish a joint venture (JV) to develop a new widebody aircraft is of considerable interest. What skills can the two companies bring to the table and what chances do they have of creating a successful contender in the world airliner market?
In technical terms, there seems little doubt that the partners will be able to produce a perfectly competent aircraft.
Russia has by far the greater experience in this area. It has a long history of producing airliners in large numbers, albeit designed to Soviet precepts of simply moving passengers from A to B, rather than with an eye on the bottom line.
UAC’s Sukhoi Superjet, designed from the outset to be the first Russian airliner to appeal to western carriers rather than just those of Russia and friendly nations, has had limited success in the west so far, but it has found enthusiastic supporters in Mexico’s Interjet, which has ordered no fewer than 30. It has a chance to win over European carriers now that the first examples are being delivered to CityJet.
June also saw the unveiling in Irkutsk of UAC’s MC-21, a 160-211 seat single-aisle design that will be offered with a choice of Pratt & Whitney PW1400G geared turbofans or Russian Aviadvigatel PD-14 engines.
China is not so far along the design road, with its first modern jetliner, the ARJ-21 regional jet, having just entered service after an extremely protracted development phase. However, it was always regarded as a means by which China could gain experience in constructing and certificating the C919 narrowbody, which is due to fly for the first time later this year and which is much more representative of modern technology.
The C919 will, in turn, act as a stepping stone towards the new Russian-Chinese design; in the past, COMAC has proposed a 290-seat design known as the C929. It is not known to what extent that will be reflected in the new JV’s aircraft, which is being targeted for 2025 service entry.
There is little doubt that the aircraft will rack up a respectable number of sales, if only because China alone is calculated to require at least 1,000 widebodies over the next 15-20 years and the country’s airlines will doubtless be ‘encouraged’ to buy the local contender. But will it find foreign sales?
There is little doubt it will be cut the mustard technically: Russian technological and aerodynamic know-how is not to be sniffed at and the Chinese are rapidly catching up with international standards (the Chinese are also likely to supply much of the funding for the project.) But the JV faces the huge hurdle of trying to elbow its way into a market dominated by the Boeing-Airbus duopoly.
After-sales support for Russian aircraft is infinitely better than it was – UAC admitted while the Superjet was in development that it was aware of the absolute necessity of bringing in-service backing standards up to snuff – but marketing remains a relative weak point for both Russia and (especially) China. And marketing is an area in which both Boeing and Airbus excel.
It’s not just the technical aspects of developing an airliner that are important – it’s the intricacies of human interaction on which UAC and COMAC will have to put in a lot of work.
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