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June 21, 2017

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Aim to end Airbus-Boeing duopoly

CHINA’S C919 and Russia’s MC-21 may be absent from the tarmac at the Paris Air Show, but their makers don’t hide their ambition to nose into the biggest part of the civil aviation market — single-aisle medium-haul aircraft — dominated by Airbus and Boeing.

“For decades there were just two families of competing aircraft in the single-aisle segment, the (Airbus) A320 and the (Boeing) 737,” said Stephane Albernhe, managing partner at Archery Consulting.

Both firms have been announcing business worth tens of billions of dollars for their mid-range best-sellers at the Paris Air Show, but they’re unlikely to keep the market for themselves for long.

“Things are beginning to change because the duopoly is being attacked by the Bombardier’s C Series, Comac’s C919 and Irkut’s MC-21.

While Bombardier’s C Series began commercial service last year, both the C919 and MC-21 only just made their maiden test flights last month and are years away from entering into service.

The C919, which made its first test flight on May 5, built by state-owned aerospace manufacturer COMAC, or Commercial Aircraft Corp of China, represents nearly a decade of effort in a drive to reduce the nation’s dependence on Airbus and Boeing aircraft. Capable of carrying 168 passengers over 5,500 kilometers, the C919 already has 600 orders.

The MC-21 also represents an effort by Russia to end reliance on foreign aircraft. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian airlines have shifted to Airbus and Boeing aircraft which are cheaper to operate.

Manufactured by state-owned Irkut, the aircraft made its first flight on May 28 over Siberia. Capable of carrying 132-211 passengers up to 6,000km, there have been 175 orders for the MC-21, according to Irkut.

The MC-21’s maiden flight comes six years after Russia’s short-haul Sukhoi Superjet aircraft came into service in 2011. But they have since suffered serious technical issues that have forced the plane’s grounding.

For Gilles Fournier, managing director of the Paris Air Show, “these planes are not yet mature enough to display” at the event. But, he added, “I think they will be in two years” at the next Paris Air Show.

“These new entrants have states which support them and they won’t stop there,” said Albernhe.

“They have started with single-aisle aircraft, but its a good wager that at least as far as the Chinese are concerned, the next model with be a long-haul aircraft.”

In fact, Beijing and Moscow announced last month they intend to work together this time a long-distance aircraft, which has been baptized C-929 by the Chinese.

Capable of carrying 280 passengers on flights up to 12,000km, the C-929 would take on the latest long-haul jets offered by Airbus and Boeing — the A350 and 787 Dreamliner.

The plane is to be developed by COMAC and Russia’s United Aircraft Corp.

Chinese media have said development could cost between US$13 billion and US$20 billion. So far the Chinese are proceeding slowly to acquire know-how, and relying on their vast home market, to avoid a commercial failure.

Airbus and Boeing estimate the Chinese market will need about 6,000 new aircraft over the next few decades, making it worth a trillion dollars.

And until the C919 and MC-21 receive US and European certification, the aircraft won’t be able to truly compete internationally.


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