China Set To Break Airbus And Boeing’s Aviation Duopoly

Boeing’s poor handling of the MAX disaster could prove to be more damaging than even they realize. The Chinese are poised to break into aviation in a big way, and with Boeing’s reputation in tatters, this could be the opportunity they’ve been waiting for.

COMAC C919
Could the Chinese built C919 gain some traction following the 737 MAX disaster? Photo: Wikipedia

For decades, there have only been really two choices when it comes to commercial aircraft. Boeing and Airbus have a powerful duopoly over the industry, supplying aircraft worldwide at the fastest pace they can.

The two manufacturers are often neck and neck when it comes to sales and production. Some years Boeing wins out, others it’s Airbus. But recent events could soon change all that, as Boeing faces up to the prospect of losing the love for its bestselling aircraft.

After two catastrophic crashes of the MAX 8, Boeing were slow to take action, stoically sticking to their assurances that the aircraft were safe to fly. The first to ground the planes were China, followed some days later by the rest of the world.

The fallout from this is that some airlines no longer want to buy the plane, despite the extensive safety testing that will be carried out before its allowed to fly again. Instead, the narrowbody orders will be filled by their rival Airbus. Or could there be a third option?

The Comac C919

While Boeing and Airbus lock horns for their share of the market, China have been quietly beavering away at their own 737 rival. The Comac C919 has been a long time coming, but is shaping up to be a pretty good aircraft.

When China decided to enter the commercial aircraft manufacturing market, they made a wise decision – to go for the basic airline workhorse. Nothing fancy here, just a solid single aisle jet for transporting 160-200 passengers on domestic routes. China alone will need around 9,000 of these in the next 20 years. This meant there were two existing designs for them to learn from: the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320.

A320
From the outside, the C919 is identical to an A320. Photo: Wikimedia

Although both aircraft are popular with carriers and well known models, the Airbus is the newer of the two. The 737 was first built in the 1960s, and despite being updated with new technology when it comes about, for the most part it hasn’t changed all that much. The A320, on the other hand, was built in the 1980s, and made use of many more modern elements in its fundamental design.

As such, Comac chose to emulate the A320 for their home grown passenger jet. From the outside, the C919 is virtually indistinguishable from the Airbus; but, of course, that’s not the part that matters. Under the hood, Comac needed some help, and had to set up partnerships with many of the biggest names in aircraft manufacturing; Rockwell Collins, UTC Aerospace, Thales, CFM… with no domestic supply chain in place, there was no other option available.

Helped by Europe, hindered by the US

Building an airliner is no mean feat. A new manufacturer needs to learn how to build one of the most complex machines known to man to the very highest standard of safety.

The Russians tried with the Sukhoi Superjet, but tales of unreliability and a crash during a demonstration have meant sales have never really taken off. Japan too have been working on the Mitsubishi Regional Jet for years, with technical glitches demonstrating that they are still a way down on their learning curve.

MRJ
The Mitsubishi Regional Jet is still not all it should be. Photo: Wikipedia

In some ways, Airbus have helped the Chinese with their own learning curve. When they opened an assembly plant in China over 10 years ago, it gave the Chinese the opportunity to get some hands on experience of the production process.

Boeing missed a trick here and have paid the price for it. 25% of Airbus’ sales are in China; just 14% of Boeing’s are. Airbus are winning in the East, at least in part thanks to their willingness to let China in on the secrets of their build. Boeing opened a plant for the 737 MAX in China, finally, last December, but they were very late to the party.

However, Comac’s dependency on international suppliers has been their biggest weakness. Since the Trump administration began their trade war with China, it has slowed their ability to crack on with production. Even so, the Chinese won’t be discouraged.

Could the C919 take on the MAX?

Despite all that’s happened, the Boeing 737 MAX will fly again. It will probably sell too, by the thousand, and will almost certainly be just as safe as previous generations of the 737 were. However, the issues with the MAX have highlighted the problem with sticking new technology into a 60 year old airframe, and that’s something Boeing will need to think carefully about.

Lion Air 737 MAX
The two tragic accidents involving the MAX 8 have damaged Boeing’s reputation. Photo: Wikimedia

Although the hiccup at Boeing has offered a ray of hope for Comac, it’s unlikely that the Chinese built aircraft will really make a dent in Boeing’s stronghold. However, it’s a great aircraft and likely to be around for many years to come.

China are already onto their next project; a widebody jet to compete with the A350 and 787. They’re expecting this to be ready by 2025 and are working with the Russians to make it happen. A break in the Boeing-Airbus duopoly may be way off yet, but eventually it will happen.

9 comments
  1. Excellent article. I suspect that Chinese airlines will heavily favour the Comac, if it can be shown to have good dispatch reliability and safety. Those points are thorny. Both the Japanese and Chinese are good at making trains and cars, but the Japanese have had a long struggle with making a plane…and the Chinese may have similar problems. It’s probable that China is using all available means to extract technical know-how from the Airbus facility in China, so this may give them a head start. If they manage to pull it off, it will be a major headache for both Boeing and Airbus.

    1. Definitely, and thanks for the feedback. China are going to be buying a lot of aircraft in the next decade, so if the Comac makes sense economically as well as in terms of reliability then I agree, they’ll be a favourite of Chinese airlines.

      1. I read on a Dutch website yesterday that Ethopian Airlines is showing potential interest in the Comac C919. So the headache for Boeing/Airbus is already taking shape…

  2. Simply flying again means that the Max 8 will finally get properly certified, which it sure isn’t, AND that passengers will be willing to fly in it. That I doubt. Airlines will soon discover this fatal glitch. The Russian plane is doing much better than this simply biased article claims.

    1. Russian planes do well in Russia, and a handful of other nations. In terms of the actual aircraft they are producing, they’re pretty good but not really up to competing with modern US / EU built airliners, and that’s why EU and US airlines don’t buy them.

  3. Japan has just produced the Mitsubishi Regional Jet which is currently going through certification flights.

    Though it is an 88-seat passenger plane being much smaller than the Boeing Max 8, it still has a range of around 2000 miles. Its launch partner in Japan is ANA.

  4. All it would for Airbus to solidly capture a substantial corner of the market is to work on the A220-500, thus capable of replacing the A320, and at the same time launch the A322 and tweak the A330-800. Here’s how. The A322 essentially will be a new iteration of the A320 family, the main difference being increasing the cabin width from 3.7 m (146 in) to 3.96 m (156 in);

    There will be two primary variants, the standard A322-100 and the stretched A322-200. The A322-100 will be approximately 40.23 m (132 ft) long and seat 170 (2 class) or 200 (exit limit). The A322-200 is the the A322-100 fuselage stretched 6 m (20 ft) and seat 200 (2 class) or 230 (exit limit). Both standard variants will be able to fly a full payload up to 3,500 nm. In addition, there will be a long-range (LR) variant for the A322-100 and A322-200, allowing for flights up to 5,000 nm.

    Airbus could shorten the A330-800 by 20 ft from 193 ft to 173 ft, seating 240 (2 class) or 280 (exit limit), and fly a full payload on standard mission up to 3,500 nm and long-range missions up to 5,000 nm.

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