Boeing’s mishandling of the MAX-8 crisis could well end up giving the Chinese a chance to do something that no other nation has successfully achieved: break the global duopoly in commercial airplanes of Boeing and Airbus.
Boeing is desperately trying to limit the damage to its reputation caused by two catastrophic MAX-8 crashes in five months. As it turns out, the greatest long-term harm to the company’s business is likely to be in China.
The Chinese were the first to ground the MAX-8 after the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March and soon afterward the Chinese placed a massive $35 billion order for 300 jets from Airbus.
For more than a decade Boeing and Airbus have been competing to meet China’s seemingly insatiable appetite for commercial airplanes. It is estimated that air travel in China is growing so fast that in the next 20 years the nation’s airlines will need at least 7,400 new airplanes.
Long before the grounding of the MAX-8, Airbus was clearly ahead of Boeing in China. Nearly a quarter of Airbus sales are in China, compared to 14 percent for Boeing.
Boeing and Airbus have built the most powerful duopoly the world has ever seen. Between them the two companies have virtually locked up the market for commercial jets of every size.
Any country or company taking them on faces a daunting price of entry. To develop a modern jet from scratch can cost up to $25 billion, even for Airbus or Boeing with generations of expertise to build on.
A newcomer has to learn how to design and build the most complex machine in public use to the highest standards of safety. It involves an amalgam of some of the most advanced technologies in the world.
But that is not enough. A new jet also has to be supported by a global chain to service and maintain the fleet of jets in a timely way to exacting standards set by the airlines.
Attempts by other countries to do this have not turned out well.
The Russians are selling the Sukhoi Superjet, a small single-aisle design that suffered a severe blow in 2012 when it was being demonstrated in Indonesia to prospective buyers and crashed, killing 37 aviation industry executives. The few airlines now using it have complained about its unreliability.
The Japanese are flight-testing the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, a project that has been delayed five times since being launched in 2013. This entirely conventional design should have been relatively easy to execute but has been dogged by technical glitches that reveal that the Japanese are still on a steep learning curve in aviation.
Many analysts doubted that the Chinese could fare better. They had nothing like the scientific experience of the Russians, who were once world leaders in advanced aerodynamics. If the Russians could screw up so spectacularly surely the Chinese would truly flunk the same test.
But from the beginning the Chinese were cautious in their ambitions; the temptations of hubris—of making too big a leap—were avoided. How they finally made the decision reveals a lot about their philosophy of how to break into a field where their knowledge was thin and experience non-existent.
Those who claim to understand Chinese strategic thinking seem to agree on one thing: they always play the long game. So unlike Donald Trump.
To begin with, they targeted the most profitable market, for the basic airline workhorse, single-aisle jets carrying between 160 and 200 passengers on domestic routes. China alone will need around 9,000 new airplanes in the next 20 years and most of them will be single-aisle.
This meant that there were two Western designs for them to learn from, the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320. The 737 was the most venerable, originating in the 1960s and, as the MAX-8 crisis has shown, its age is evident. The A320 was designed in the 1980s and was the first commercial jet to use fly-by-wire flight controls and a far higher degree of cockpit automation.
On the face of it the Chinese were choosing between one design that remained in many respects 60 years old and one that was 30 years old.
They chose to make a clone of the A320 that they named the C919 (C for Comac, the government-financed company tasked with the mission.)
When the program was launched in 2011 many of the technologies that were novel when Airbus created the A320 were by then commonplace.
And in one key respect the A320 was outdated: It was built mainly of metal while both Airbus and Boeing had since adopted non-metal composites for large parts of the airframe of their latest jets because composites are as strong as metal but lighter in weight and more easily molded into more efficient aerodynamic surfaces.
The Chinese stuck with metal and in opting for the clone Comac produced an airplane that was outwardly virtually indistinguishable from the A320.
That was the easy bit. Most jets that sit at an airport gate look the same but under their skin it’s a different story. Each planemaker’s proprietorial knowledge lies deep in thousands of details, much of it in technology and intellectual property controlled by western companies.
To proceed Comac had to set up partnerships with many of those companies, including one of the largest, UTC Aerospace Systems, part of America’s United Technologies, Rockwell Collins, Honeywell and the French technology colossus, Thales. The engines also come from the Franco-American alliance of Safran and General Electric.
This dependency has now been overshadowed by Trump’s trade war with China. Last October Vice President Mike Pence warned: “We will continue to stand strong until Beijing stops the predatory practice of forced technology transfer.”
Just how “forced technology transfer” is defined was unclear. Most aerospace projects involve international partnerships. Some of the technology used in building an airliner also crosses over into military applications but none of it would qualify as a state secret and certainly none of that required for the C919 is classified.
Airbus has, however, accelerated China’s learning curve in producing commercial jets by establishing an assembly plant for the A320 in China, now 10 years old.
This plant does not build a jet from the ground up. It follows a model that Airbus uses in Europe. Major sections of the airplane are built in plants dispersed throughout Europe and then shipped to final assembly lines in France and Germany.
The same major sections—fuselage, wings, engines, landing gear—are flown to China to be mated on the final production line there. The internal cabin fittings are also carried out as custom-ordered by an airline.
This has enabled the Chinese to have hands-on experience of some of the most exacting stages of building an airliner, like joining the wings to the fuselage, channeling the complex wiring (a detail that the Japanese mishandled on their regional jet) and attaching the engines and fuel systems.
Boeing was slow to appreciate how much Airbus’s success in China was due to its willingness to let the Chinese learn at first hand all the secrets of a production process that can produce in Europe more than 50 airplanes a month—a rate that China will not reach for years to come. Last December Boeing finally opened a similar assembly plant in China for the 737 MAX series.
And the 737 MAX series will fly again. Thousands more will probably be sold. But the lethal mistakes made in giving the design yet another upgrade have exposed the limitations imposed by the age of its airframe.
China will be able to exploit this opportunity to establish the C919 as an Asian-built airplane that will be supported by the world’s largest domestic airline market. The conservatism of its design will be seen as a virtue if it proves to be competitive and reliable.
As Airbus have done with the A320, Comac will be able to keep the C919 competitive with new generations of engines. Most of the improvements in an airliner’s efficiency—lower emissions, less gas guzzling, greatly reduced sound—come from rapidly advancing jet engine technology. Along with some relatively easy aerodynamic tweaking the C919 should be around for decades to come.
And the Chinese designers have already moved on. They are developing a larger widebody jet to compete with the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 to be ready by 2025, this time partnering with the Russians. There will no doubt be setbacks on the way, but the Boeing-Airbus duopoly will for sure eventually lose its dominance of the skies.