China claims its place at Paris airshow
China aims to claim its rightful place at the Paris International Airshow this week alongside giants Airbus and Boeing, laying down a marker for its ambitions to be a major player in global aviation.
Airbus and Boeing dominate the hugely important Chinese market but Beijing has long made clear its intentions to make its own aircraft, moving swiftly up the technological ladder, just as it has in so many other products.
Its immediate target is the medium-haul segment, carved up between Airbus with its A320 twin-engined series and Boeing's similar 737, the largest selling commercial aircraft since its launch in 1967 and a mainstay in Chinese skies.
Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) makes its first appearance at the Le Bourget airshow next week just north of Paris, with a mock-up of the cockpit and part of the fuselage of its C919 model.
Currently under development, the 190-seat C919 is due to enter service in 2016, just after Airbus brings its upgraded and already much sought after A320neo to the market, raising the question of whether China's first commercial jet can make inroads against such tough opposition.
For the moment, Comac has won orders for some 100 C919s from Chinese airlines but has found only one foreign customer - the leasing arm of US conglomerate General Electric.
The company is clearly hoping for more by setting up its stall at Le Bourget, analysts say.
"They want to talk to companies and to bring them up to date with how the (C919) project is going," said Christophe Menard, aerospace analyst with Kepler.
"There are discussions underway with a number of Western aviation companies," said Jean-Paul Ebanga, head of CFM International, the Franco-American firm supplying engines for the C919.
For the airlines to take the C919 seriously, there are the key issues of its airworthiness certification, its performance and delivery date to be resolved.
To ensure it can bring the C919 to market successfully, Comac, part of the giant China Aviation Industry Corp (Avic), has joined up with several major Western groups -- CFMI for the engines, France's Michelin for tyres and Safran for the cabling of the aircraft.
"We have settled on a timetable and things are moving on. We have no reason to question the rationale of the programme," CFMI head Ebanga said.
For Menard, Comac's tie-ups with the Western companies are clearly intended to "bolster the credibility of the project" and reflect a simple truth -- if it is to stand any chance against Airbus and Boeing, it needs foreign help.
In March, the company announced another tie-up, this time with Canada's Bombardier which is also trying to break into the medium-haul market based on its experience in smaller passenger jets.
"In terms of the airframe (fuselage and wings), Comac should benefit from Bombardier's experience," Menard said.
The accord with Bombardier will no doubt "help accelerate" the C919 project but for Airbus and Boeing, Comac still presents no immediate threat, he said.
"For them, it is a competitor but the threat is not for right now but for the medium-term, looking ahead to around 2020," Menard said.
At the same time, Comac will be just one of several likely new entrants to the highly competitive market, with Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer making great strides.
"There will be other aviation companies, Chinese, Russian," Fabrice Bregier, the Airbus number two, said recently.
Airbus and Boeing will have to face a number of new competitors by 2030 and they will have to prepare for that, making sure that they "anticipate developments and invest in new technologies," Bregier said.
© 2011 AFP