2012-06-04 (bizjournals.com and by Steve Wilhelm)– China’s aerospace industry may be linking up with the Russians as a next step toward building wide-body aircraft to compete against both Boeing and Airbus.
You won’t see a Chinese competitive wide-body jet for many years, if not decades — but a news item in the Russian financial newspaper Vedomosti is worth noting.
The lead story on the newspaper’s digital front page (courtesy of Google Translator), says that Russia’s United Aircraft Corp. and China’s Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd. (COMAC), “Intend to establish a JV (joint venture) to develop a new long-haul aircraft based on Il-96. Russia will provide the know-how, China — money.”
The newspaper was financed by the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, so it should have some credibility.
(And tip of the hat to FlightBlogger for picking up on this. That online publication said the pact will be announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 6.)
Building a new aircraft based on the Russian Il-96 would be a bit like developing a new car based on the Oldsmobile, which was competitive in its day but is now extinct.
Actually, it wouldn’t be as competitive as that, because only 18 of the four-engine Ilyushin wide bodies are now flying, even though the model was certified in 1992. Compared to similar Boeing and Airbus wide-body models, it is heavy and inefficient, although the last models were outfitted with Pratt & Whitney engines.
But China is pouring money into its aircraft development programs, as it vies to catch up with the West in this area as well as others.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes division CEO Jim Albaugh, speaking June 1 at the Aviation Club in the United Kingdom, said China’s aircraft program is the biggest threat to Boeing.
So what would China gain from a partnership with Russia? Probably some core knowledge about how to build a functioning wide-body plane, which the Chinese could eventually leverage into building a competitive airplane.
“The Chinese don’t do anything unless there’s some benefit for them,” said Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst who’s president of Leeham LLC, of Issaquah. “I think it’s more that they learn a bit here, then something else, and they combine the two to move forward.”
China already has signed a pact with Canada’s Bombardier, probably with a similar agenda.With 4,000 years of history, China has a very long view — and as the world’s biggest exporter, it now has very deep pockets. (Take a look at an interview this week with Puget Sound-area Chinese leader Yushi Shen, who shares his view of time, and of the differences between China and the United States.)
“The Chinese are very patient people,” Hamilton said. “They waited 99 years to get Hong Kong and Macao back, what’s waiting 20 to 30 years to have an efficient aircraft industry?”
As a reference point, Hamilton points out that Airbus’ first aircraft, the A300, was behind the era’s cutting edge of aircraft design, but was an essential step for Airbus to take in order to go head-to-head with Boeing.
COMAC’s current C919, a competitor to the Boeing 737 Max and Airbus A320neo, also is a step behind, but the C919 also is a stepping stone.
“It will be an OK airplane, it’s going to be a proof-of-concept airplane,” Hamilton said about the C919.
So if COMAC and Ilyushin really do link up, look to the long view.