China won’t be competitor for 20 years: Leahy

China’s emerging commercial aerospace industry won’t be a viable competitor to Airbus and Boeing for 20 years, predicts John Leahy, COO Customers of Airbus.

Speaking at the Credit Suisse Aerospace conference in New York, Leahy noted the challenges COMAC has with the ARJ21 regional jet; and the development of the C919 mainline aircraft, neither will commercially be an effective aircraft compared with today’s aircraft from Western companies.

Boeing’s Jim Albaugh, CEO of Commercial Airplanes, speaking separately at the same event, agreed. He also said Boeing has erected “high walls” around its technology, and will maintain its lead over China by building “tomorrow’s airplane” while China is building “today’s airplane.”

Albaugh acknowledged there is some technology transfer of today’s generation.

32 Comments on “China won’t be competitor for 20 years: Leahy

  1. I think both Leahy and Albaugh are underestimating China. They currently build and export fighter aircraft. It is not a big leap in technology to design, market, and build a commerical airliner. China can do it a lot cheaper than the US or EU can. Who knows what will happen in 5, 10, or 20 years? For all I know LH, AA, DL, BA, AF, etc. might all have Chinese built airliners entering their fleets, all sold at about a third of what Boeing or Airbus can sign a contract for.

  2. Interesting- like whistling thru the graveyard. As a new- fresh injun-ear in 1957, i was working for Firestone Guided Missile Division making the FIRST nuke armed ballistic missile in service – the Corporal. When sputnik went up in the fall, a few weeks later, I attended a seminar at Cal Tech in Pasadena. A then erudite Guru named Hibbs (?) gave a long detailed paper on why the Russkies were flat out wrong about the weight of the Sputnik, etc- reason having to do with structural efficiency, specific impulse of rocket motors, etc etc etc.

    After all , those clods were barely out of the stone age, it was a one of- a lucky shot, etc.

    Great argument… then a few months later, a larger satellite was launched with a Dog …..

    Pretty much that same booster combination is still in use….

    Now our experts are saying China cant possibly catch up in less than 20 years . .

    Riiiiiiggggghtttttt !

    • Most people agree that the problem is not the technical capabilities of the Chinese, but it’s rather a cultural problem. The Russians have the same credibility problem today. Both countries have not cared for their people for several decades now. And to take care of customers means to take care of people. Marketing is not just another Five-Year Plan.

  3. I agree with Leahy on this. Yes things from China are cheap but most of them are also second rate. They’ll usualy do the job but break down faster etc. I remember my dad cursing chineese made drill bits that just weren’t up to the job of drilling a hole. I also have no doubt that these quality issues will be fixed eventually but it will take time. Unfortunately for chineese airplanes+engines are one of the most complicated things to build well so the estimate of 20 years in the article might be quite correct.

    What is also correct that C919 is more or less a clone of current generations of airplanes. Sure, the are hanging on it better engines but same is done also at the moment by both A and B. Once A and B decide to build a new gen. of narrowbody it will be very different from C919.

    • You are following a misconception.

      Why should the chinese sell for a couple of cents items of the same quality that a US manufacturer asks $10 for.
      chinese sell for those couple of cents items of about $1 value ( and you still pay $3 to $5
      at your DIY place.
      While local produce may have 1/3 of value created in manufacturing , 1/3 value add in wholesale and the final 1/3 in retail the chinese manufacturer in in it for 1/30th!

      You get what you pay for.( at each stage 😉

  4. China’s challenge in bringing an aircraft to the western market will not be technical. For the most part, the C919 uses the same western systems and engine suppliers Airbus and Boeing use. The real barriers to entry in the western market will have little, if anything to do with the airplane:

    Certification – EASA and the FAA will not be giving a free pass to COMAC on certification of the C919. Boeing & Airbus have deep relationships and detailed working knowledge of both the EASA and the FAA, all of which helps them to work through the thousands of details which must be evaluated, negotiated and agreed upon in order to achieve PC, AC and TC for an aircraft. COMAC will get some help from its western suppliers, but achieving their first approvals and certifications from the FAA and EASA will not be easy.

    Support & logistics – Comac has nothing today. The partnership with BBD will help, but even BBD is not equipped to support aircraft in the 150-200 seat market. Establishing the network and infrastructure to support the expectations of operators like ANA, QAN, DLH or DAL will not be easy or inexpensive, even with BBD’s involvement.

    Confidence – When a Boeing aircraft is unable to produce power on approach, or when an Airbus aircraft mysteriously disappears over the Atlantic, operators take a look at the all-operator messages from the OEM’s and dispatch their aircraft with a lot of confidence the day after – they know Airbus and Boeing will do their utmost to get to the bottom of the problem (even if it takes years), and they are comfortable neither Airbus nor Boeing will put their passengers and crew at risk just to keep the fleet flying. COMAC likely would behave no differently than Airbus or Boeing under these circumstances, but they have no track record to point back to. Instead, we have boatloads of evidence from other Sino-corporations which points to a corporate culture that patently disregards consumer safety. In a make profit at all costs and never acknowledge wrongdoing Chinese corporate culture, convincing me they will treat my airline and passengers right will not be easy.

    China will balance the above negatives with financing for operators when no one else will provide it. This (more so than low purchase price) will be the bait which gets the first western airline to bite.

  5. dziny :
    Yes things from China are cheap but most of them are also second rate. They’ll usualy do the job but break down faster etc. I remember my dad cursing chineese made drill bits that just weren’t up to the job of drilling a hole.

    There is plenty of amazing engineering and manufacturing happening in China. That they produce a lot of low end products is not an indication of what they are capable of producing when goals are different.

    Doesn’t mean they can reach parity faster than 20 years because there are a lot of other things that needs to come together, It is not even sure they will reach parity in 20 years. Hopefully Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer will work just as hard at staying ahead.

    • Could I add to that the fact that a huge amount of quality high-tech is also made in China!

      Think smartphones, laptops, etc. etc. And I’m talking about a lot of parts for your well-known high-tech branded goods as well.

      They produce the whole spectrum – if your hardware store wants to sell super-cheap drill bits then they’ll make them. If your over-priced high-tech gizmo company needs a tough, long-lasting touchscreen and sensitive radio antenna then they’ll make those too.

  6. Falcon :
    Doesn’t mean they can reach parity faster than 20 years because there are a lot of other things that needs to come together, It is not even sure they will reach parity in 20 years.

    You are 100% correct. China can produce quality. That will not be an issue.

    As for parity, it is a funny thing, and not always arrived at technically. Two aircraft can achieve parity in market share even when there is a disparity in performance – commercial terms can always be used to level the playing field. China will play this game very well, even with an airframe which will almost certainly be inferior to competing products in a technical sense (the C919 structure is just about 100% an AVIC product). It may take 20 years (or longer) for the Chinese to achieve technical parity for the airframe (aero and structure) and to stand up a quality Sino supply base. However, a Chinese product may well become a real competitor for western sales long before the Chinese aircraft achieve any sense of technical parity.

  7. Normand Hamel :
    Most people agree that the problem is not the technical capabilities of the Chinese, but it’s rather a cultural problem.

    Well, perhaps I should say “many people”, instead of “most people”.

    Like Dshuper was trying to convey, we could be surprised by the Chinese capabilities like we were at one time by the Russians’s (or the Soviets, as they were called then). What the Chinese need most right now is a cultural revolution, a very different kind than the one they went through between 1966 and 1976. It should be less painful this time, but possibly more difficult to achieve though.

    • What “culturally revolutionary items” do you see as lacking but essential?

      China is growing a middle class fast. An imho essential item. ( Something one
      can’t say for the US or other western nations at that : there the middle class
      as enabling foundation for a democratic society is marginalised )

  8. Don’t forget, the Chinese do have some very good engineers. Just a few years ago, they were the first nation to actually shoot down a satillite from orbit. The US had the capability then (with the SM-3 missile) but didn’t demostrate that for a few years after the Chinese.

    Back in the 1970s Boeing sold some B-707-300s to the Chinese (CAAC?), and another 100% of spare JT-3D engines. After a few years the Chinese copied the B-707 and called it the Shanghai Y-10, IIRC 3 or 4 were eventually built, powered by 4 JT-3D-7 engines that were part of the spares for the B-707s. There were differences between the B-707 and the Y-10, but they were mostly cultural, not engineering. The Y-10 had a cockpit crew of 5 (Pilot, Co-pilot, Navigator, Flight Engineer, and Radio Operator), the B-707 had 3 (Pilot, Co-Pilot, and Flight Engineer).

    • As I recall- the Chinese copy of the 707 was overweight and may never have flown.

      However few know that the first chief engineer hired by Bill Boeing was Chinese . .

      Wang Zhu was the first chief engineer hired by Boeing in 1916. Wang was born in Beijing. He studied aeronautical engineering at Armstrong Technical College in London and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. He designed the Boeing Model C seaplane, the company’s first successful airplane.

      History ( for at least 2000-3000 years ) is replete with the the ***** are not capable of what “WE” are . . with often disasterous results.

      But most likely- the first several hundred Chinese commercial aircraft will be used to serve interior markets- reducing the need for 737 size aircraft or to replace their aging interior fleet.

  9. KC135TopBoom :
    Don’t forget, the Chinese do have some very good engineers. Just a few years ago, they were the first nation to actually shoot down a satillite from orbit. The US had the capability then (with the SM-3 missile) but didn’t demostrate that for a few years after the Chinese.

    That is not what I recall. Shortly after the Chinese feat, the US responded by shouting down a satellite prior to its reentry into the atmosphere. They shut it down in low orbit in order to minimize the debris field in space. A precaution the Chinese had not taken and that’s why they created such a mess, which triggered the outrage of the space community.

    • The chinese satkill was the reply to BushII asserting “We own space”.
      The debris field was unfortunate but probably neccessary to make the point.

      Not sure if it worked ( politicaly ). The US “reply” was beyond the point and
      a distraction. So again it seems to have made some impact in the proper places.

      • I didn’t know about the “We own space”‘ episode. It would be a very provocative statement indeed. I would rather see space being used as an international venue for peace. Id est, the International Space Station.

      • No Uwe, it was the result of Clinton giving away our missile technology to them in the mid 1990s. Bush 43’s only involvement was he was in office when it happened, nothing more than that.

        BTW, the Chinese did not announce they were going to use their ASAT weapon. On Jan. 11, 2007 China used their SC-19 ASAT, a kinetic kill weapon on their own inoperable weather satelitte.

        On Feb. 14, 2008 the USN fired a SM-3 ABM missile at the failed USA-193 satelitte, destroying it in a low orbit, which it was allowed to reach to keep from causing the same mess in orbit the Chinese did.

  10. Dshuper 1957? you have been around 🙂 Great to have some historic perspective here! Agree with you. IMO dismissing your opponent is a preditable feel good process. Just recently the J20 forced analysts to rewrite their reports on China capabilities, they were off by about 5 yrs.

    If you have just been in China, you are impressed / alarmed & then it fades away until your next visit..

  11. Normand Hamel :
    I didn’t know about the “We own space”‘ episode. It would be a very provocative statement indeed. I would rather see space being used as an international venue for peace. Id est, the International Space Station.

    One has to be very carefull with “duh, obvious” views presented by the less than independent press.
    (Carefully) Looking at the runup to some political acts of senselessness regularly changes the picture completely. Take the Cuba Crisis : Add deployment of Thor and Jupiter in Italy and Turkey up front and the (silent) removal of same post crisis.
    And voila the perspective changes quite a bit.
    Going OT: The same caveat goes for “They hate us for our freedom” imho.

  12. Normand Hamel :
    The answer to your question is in my #4 comment above.

    IMHO it is nearly impossible to compare a continent of riches full of the discontent with
    a) a historically brutalised Russia and its (historic) Satellites or b) a nation that managed to avoid the overpopulation trap and grow beyond hunger. The famines and death of Mao’s cultural revolution may have enabled the current rise ( compare to the rise of depopulated Europe after the 30years war.)
    Chinas rise to success will look different to the western episode. ( my guess )
    It is all about cycles repeating with slight permutations.

  13. Uwe, I don’t mean to be political here. But I must tell you this. I have noticed that many of your comments reflect a possibly unconscious bias against one country in particular.

    You are a very interesting fellow to read, when you stick to the technical issues.

    Regards, Normand

  14. Normand Hamel :I didn’t know about the “We own space”‘ episode. It would be a very provocative statement indeed. I would rather see space being used as an international venue for peace. Id est, the International Space Station.

    The ISS is a complete waste of money and resourses. It is nothing more than an international orbital LEGO project.

    • I agree with you KC. But it’s still a symbol of peace and cooperation. So not all is waisted. But if you meant that the money could have been better invested, in more fruitful projects, definitely yes! But we were talking about space, and its potential use as a war arena. I would much prefer to loose money on a stupid LEGO project than on a cataclysmic star war.

      • “Going to the Moon” is one of the most brilliant and constructive political moves in history imho.
        Shooting Kennedy was rather indicative of the politics to come after that.

        On ISS:
        As a political instrument the ISS is like the Queen visiting on her scheming nobility. i.e. absorb as much “energy” into a controlled project to keep other nations from doing their own standalone space access projects.

        The technological gains are imho open. It gave access to most of the things the russians learned from long time orbital missions.

        Being a space nut (in my younger years, now I am not so sure ) : we are very far off from where we could have been
        with more visionary politics.
        Todays politics is about redistribution and not about creating new territory to expand into. But expansion is the lifeblood of this system.

  15. CM :China’s challenge in bringing an aircraft to the western market will not be technical. For the most part, the C919 uses the same western systems and engine suppliers Airbus and Boeing use. The real barriers to entry in the western market will have little, if anything to do with the airplane:
    Certification – ……………
    Support & logistics – …………..
    Confidence – …………………..

    Building the airplane isnt the issue here, nor the “procurement” of technologies. I concur with CM on the above, but there are two other issues at hand as well.

    Life Sustainment – Besides parts, there needs to be current, updated manuals that remains dynamic, not static. BTW, it ought to be in English. The set-up for service engineers to attend to operator’s needs for airframe repairs. The responses need to be crisp, expedient, and readable, especially with repair schemes.

    Integration – Buying / Fabbing the parts and building the airframe is the not-so-difficult bit. Integration of the systems to the airframe is key. Testing out systems the link to one another during flight tests to fine tune is key, as well as the frequent use of static test platforms.

    That said though, the Chinese will be relentless in their drive to have a marketable aircraft. It may be the C919NG, or the C919NG-NG but they will leverage on their seemingly endless resources to succeed.

    One needs to innovate to stay ahead of them. A look into the auto industry may give clues on the things and developments to come.

  16. I think you are right, Kinbin. The current C-919 is just a steping stone to something much better, and bigger. The next step may be a C-919NG, as well as another, bigger longer ranged airplane. The C-919/-919NG will be the mid-hauler, the ARJ-21 the short ranged hauler, and now time to start thinking about a long range airliner.

    The C-919 (135 sold and 60 options) and ARJ-21 (239 sold and 20 options) initially have been bought by mostly Chinese carrier, although the ARJ-21 has been ordered by US based GECAS, for 25, including options.

    The Chinese will accept small in roads into the airliner market, until they establish a firm foot hold, much like Airbus did back in 1970.

  17. KC135TopBoom :
    No Uwe, it was the result of Clinton giving away our missile technology to them in the mid 1990s. Bush 43′s only involvement was he was in office when it happened, nothing more than that.

    So going by your ways of thinking he just handed on what von Braun brought to the US after WWII ? I think I can see why the recent manned space projects didn’t work out that well !
    the chinese have that knowledge now ;-?

    To summ this up: I think you are pretty far out on the wrong track here 😉

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