China Facing Commercial Aviation Problems, Claims RAND Report

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | April 4, 2014
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[Avionics Today April 4, 2014] China is facing obstacles to establishing a successful domestic commercial aircraft manufacturing industry, according to a new report from RAND Corp. 

In 2008, the Chinese government established the Commercial Aviation Corporation of China (COMAC), in an effort to domestically produce the regional ARJ21 and C919. The report indicates that despite investing billions of dollars and importing western airframe components for both projects, COMAC is currently unable to build a commercial jet that can meet international certification standards. 
Furthermore, by the time COMAC does produce the C919, it will face stiff competition from new entrants into that market from the industry’s two biggest players, Boeing and Airbus. Boeing’s re-engined 737 MAX and the Airbus A320neo will both have entered the market by the time the C919 biome is airworthy and commercially available, according to Keith Crane, director of the RAND Environment, Energy and Economic Development Program and co-author of the report.
"This is an aspirational industry," Crane said during an interview with Avionics magazine. "They’ve put a lot of money into it, but at the current moment, for all intents and purposes, they don’t manufacture any commercial planes."
As far as the regional jet market goes with the ARJ21, COMAC indicated at the 2013 Aviation Expo that they plan to deliver their first ARJ21 regional jet to launch customer Chengdu Airlines by 2014. However, that delivery has been delayed until April or May 2015, 13 years after development on the aircraft originally began.
Thus far the commercial strategy for COMAC has been to first engage in domestic production and assembly using foreign designs, and then develop its own designs with foreign assistance, with the eventual goal to develop a commercial aircraft without any foreign assistance, the report says. 
“What they have found is that the commercial aviation sector is a highly competitive market, and that large passenger aircraft are difficult to build to international standards," said Crane. However, that has not stopped western companies from expressing interest in becoming suppliers for COMAC and helping to manufacture an aircraft that can compete against Airbus and Boeing. Rockwell Collins recently announced a new joint venture, the Rockwell Collins CETC Avionics Company (RCCAC), which will develop communications and navigation products for the C919 and other aircraft programs in China.  
Foreign companies are willing to invest in China mostly so that they can "cultivate a competitive source for aircraft parts and generate sales to Chinese airlines," according to RAND, although these companies are also wary of losing their intellectual property and core technologies to the Chinese government. RAND says the government would in fact use those resources to enhance the domestic aerospace manufacturing industry. 
The report recommends China work with both the United States and the European Union to establish more transparent "tenders for purchases of aircraft by Chinese state-owned airlines," and to allow the World Trade Organization to monitor the development of Chinese technology.  

“If the Chinese government wishes to fully integrate into the global commercial aviation manufacturing industry, it may wish to consider changing its current policies to create a more equitable business environment for foreign and Chinese commercial aviation manufacturers,” said Crane.  

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