China, Russia join the crowded sky: widebody planes to cut reliance on Airbus, Boeing

Boeing 787 aircraft. China's Comac is in talks with Russia’s United Aircraft Corp to produce a twin-aisle, long-haul commercial aircraft that can break the duopoly long held by Airbus and Boeing in civilian aircraft | Photo: Vaalaa,

China’s state-run plane manufacturer said it was in talks with Russia to develop and build a widebody commercial jet that can break the duopoly long held by Airbus and Boeing in civilian aircraft.

The Commercial Aircraft Corp of China, also called Comac, is in talks with Russia’s United Aircraft Corp to produce a twin-aisle, long-haul commercial aircraft, said the Chinese company’s assistant president Guo Bozhi, during the Zhuhai Air Show this week.

The new aircraft, which does not have a name, will be designed to compete in the same category as Airbus’ A330 and A350 models, as well as Boeing’s 777 and 787 models.

The Chinese aircraft will adopt advanced aerodynamic design and engines with low fuel burn to make them more efficient and more economical for airlines to operate, he said.

“We aim to make the direct operating cost of our new widebody jet 10 per cent lower than our competitors,” Guo said.

A model of the proposed aircraft was unveiled in Zhuhai, displaying its logo with United’s name. The aircraft will come in three variants, with up to 280 seats in standard configuration, and a maximum range of 6,480 nautical miles (12,000km). The model may be named the C929 if Comac follows the 9X9 mnemonic tradition of its aircraft series.

China is one of the latest entrants in the competition to develop home-made aircraft, eyeing the technological prestige and job creation associated with making planes.

China, the world’s most populous nation, is projected to require 6,865 new aircraft over the next 20 years valued at six trillion yuan over the next two decades, as airlines replenish their retiring fleets or expand, according to Comac’s projection.

About 21 per cent of these will be twin-aisle planes, while single-aisle aircraft make up 65 per cent of the demand, Comac said.

Shanghai-based Comac was established in 2008 with the mission to spearhead China’s development of a home-grown aircraft that can help reduce the country’s dependence on Airbus and Boeing. It launched a twin engine jet called the ARJ21, which can carry between 70 and up to 105 passengers to compete with Brazil’s Embraer and Canada’s Bombardier for short-distance flights.

Chengdu Airlines became the first customer to take delivery of this aircraft, flying three times a week between Shanghai and the Sichuan provincial capital.

Comac also has a single-aisle, narrow body plane called the C919 in development. The aircraft, which can carry between 150 and 190 passengers, is scheduled for its maiden test flight later this year, Guo said. China Eastern Airlines this week said it was in talks to buy up to five C919 models.

The C929, when it gets off the drawing board, will be a substantial leap in technology and manufacturing capability for China, said Chen Yong, chief designer of the ARJ21, during a September 29 interview at the InnoTech Expo in Hong Kong.

“We are in the final stages of creating a proof of concept” for the widebody aircraft, Chen said. “The biggest challenge we face is our lack of experience in mastering the complexities in assembling a large aircraft.”

United, established in 2005, is a consolidation of Russia’s aircraft manufacturing industry, combining the technology and brands of 18 companies including Ilyushin, Sukhoi and Tupolev.

It usually takes seven years for a new aircraft to take its first flight after the announcement, but takes 10 years for delivery, Guo said. That means the first C929 delivery is likely to be in 2025.

“There will be new technologies involved in the initial stage of developing the new craft and the new technology will be a challenge to us,” he said. “China and Russia each have their own advantages.”

“We will prefer to choose suppliers who have rich experience and whose products are competitive , and who can keep the quality from the initial stage until the aircraft goes into operation,” Guo said.

Airbus, which currently assembles the A320 family of narrowbody aircraft in Tianjin, is confident about China’s demand for larger, long-haul aircraft.

“Over 170 A330s are in service in China now, and it is one of the most favourite aircraft in the country,” said Chen Juming, Airbus China president.

Boeing is also getting in on the act. The US planemaker is finalising plans for a facility in Zhoushan, near Shanghai, for finishing work and delivery of its best-selling B-737 narrowbody jets to Chinese airlines.