The Zhuhai Air Show in China is Nov. 16-21 and there are a number of expectations for it.
First is the expectation in the West that Bombardier will announce the long-awaited Chinese order for the CSeries from China Development Bank (CDB), which earlier this year pledged more than $3bn in airline financing to Bombardier for the Q400, CRJ and CSeries. The Chinese order had widely been expected at the Farnborough Air Show and when it didn’t appear, Bombardier took a huge PR hit and disappointed aerospace analysts.
In fact, we predicted a full week before the Air Show that no CSeries orders would be announced there. We’re going to go out on a limb and predict there won’t be any announced at the Zhuhai show, either.
We were among those who thought China would hold the CSeries order to Zhuhai, but as events have evolved we now think the Chinese will use Zhuhai to showcase their own indigenous aerospace industry, including the long-anticipated domestic order for the COMAC C919. Air China, China Eastern and China Southern are expected to announce orders for this competitor to the Boeing 737-800/900 and the Airbus A320/321.
The Wall Street Journal had this story on October 26 suggesting the C919 order (subscription required). The Chinese news agency Xinhau has this story about China promoting its indigenous aircraft industry at the air show and The People’s Daily–the official newspaper of the government– has this story about the C919 and the ARJ21 making appearances at the show. The former is a full-size mock up and the latter will be an actual airplane.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Chinese culture, this scenario is ‘very Chinese.’ We’ve been to China many times doing business, and for China, everything is all about prestige, politics and face. The Chinese are very proud and patient people. For those who dismiss the idea that China will develop a viable aerospace industry, pointing with justification to past efforts that were embarrassing failures, we like to say that that was then and this is now–and the Chinese waited 99 years for the return of Macau and Hong Kong, and waiting a generation to have a viable, competitive aerospace industry for commercial airliners is a walk in the park. Once the Chinese set a national goal, they will take as long as it takes to achieve it.
China is now the world’s second economy, having surpassed Japan this year and trailing only the US. It’s working toward a “blue water” navy to challenge the US and to project its interests throughout the Asia-Pacific region. It’s put a man in space. It’s engaged in cybersecurity activities that only a few in the US truly understand.
Creating the C919 to challenge Airbus and Boeing is an effort of enormous pride. (The AVIC ARJ21 is what the Navy would call a ‘makee-learn’ airplane, and it’s not going to be competitive with the regional jets of Embraer, Bombardier or even Mitsubishi.) We don’t think the C919, which looks like the A320, will be as efficient as either the 737 or the A320, the latter even without re-engining, or at least not as efficient to be particularly competitive. Based on very sketchy information, the C919 looks to be heavier than the A320 and with less range. The CFM International LEAP-X-1C engine is widely reported to be an early version that won’t have the high level of fuel efficiency promised for the version that is scheduled to enter service in 2018-19.
Furthermore, given the two year delay in the entry-into-service of the ARJ-21, we believe the 2016 EIS for the C919 will likely slip to 2018, even with its currently planned eight-year launch-to-EIS timeline; we just don’t think the Chinese will make it. In addition to the challenges we foresee for the C919, this article in Aviation Week magazine from last June quotes an unidentified COMAC executive as pinpointing potential timeline risk for the CFM LEAP-X.
If Boeing proceeds with a replacement for the 737 with an EIS of 2019-2020, the C919 will have largely only domestic appeal.
But this is hardly the point. For more than a year, we have been calling the C919 a “proof of concept” airplane that will lead to better airplanes. With all this in mind, we now conclude that the Chinese politicians will use Zhuhai to showcase the C919 and launch orders, and as frustrating as it will be for Bombardier, the CSeries will take a back seat. Prestige, politics and face are all important to the Chinese government. Everyone else can suffer the consequences as a result.