Is New Chinese Plane Really a Threat to Boeing?

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Last Friday, Chinese aircraft maker Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China Ltd., or Comac, completed the first test flight of its single-aisle C919 passenger jet. The new aircraft, which seats up to 174 passengers, is expected to begin delivery in 2019.

To date, Comac has taken orders for some 570 of the new planes and projects that it will eventually sell planes valued at $650 billion. Because the C919 will compete against the 737 MAX from The Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) and the Airbus A320 families of single-aisle planes, it would appear that the Comac jet could be a serious threat to the two established aircraft manufacturers.

Completing a successful first flight and delivering thousands of new airplanes are not the same thing, however. Airbus delivered its first plane to Air France in 1974. The European maker delivered its 10,000th aircraft to Singapore Airlines in 2016, 42 years later.

In its most recent 20-year aircraft market outlook published last July, Boeing estimated that the market for new aircraft in all of Asia, including China, would total 15,130 new aircraft through 2035.

Both Airbus and Boeing could be producing as many as 60 single-aisle planes per month by 2020. Comac will be lucky to be producing 60 new planes a year by then. Just to fill its current backlog will take Comac the best part of 10 years, even if production doubles.

That is not to say that Comac’s aircraft won’t eventually compete with Boeing and Comac. The company is seeking certification for the plane both in the European and U.S. markets, but there is no guarantee that it will be forthcoming.

Another hurdle is Comac’s lack of ownership of the technology that has gone into the C919. Until the company can develop its own technology it will always be at least a generation behind its rivals — and new technology doesn’t come cheap.

Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group, told Bloomberg News:

At the moment, they are in a real replication mode, which is not where you want to be. First off, they need to privatize and open their supply chain up to a global network, rather than just people who will transfer yesterday’s technology.

Aboulafia thinks that Comac may not be a threat to Boeing and Airbus until its second plane is ready for delivery. The company is working on a dual-aisle design with a Russian company, but that plane is probably at least 10 years away from a first delivery.