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China’s homemade aircraft to break duopoly of Boeing, Airbus

China unveiled its first homegrown passenger jet C919 on November 2, joining the ranks of an elite group of countries capable of developing large passenger aircraft. It is a breakthrough for China’s high-end manufacturing despite the fact that China’s home-based airplane production started from 1950s.

The 158-seat jetliner, made by Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (COMAC), received both applause and criticism, with foreign media saying that it was merely an assembly from foreign components. The engines of the plane are produced by the US-French joint venture CFM International.

Undoubtedly, the first domestically produced large passenger jet lags behind aviation giants Boeing and Airbus. But the notion of it being a mere assembly is either undue or based on misunderstanding.

CFM not only provides engines to China, but also to Boeing and Airbus in bulk. The aviation frontrunners purchase components, including core parts like engines, from all over the world, as it is a universal norm in plane production to combine manufacturers with component suppliers.

The C919 is made by China because its design, aerodynamic configuration and system integration were all completed and tested by the manufacturer in China.

It took China over a decade to develop a complete homegrown industry chain for high-speed trains, which was done in five stages. In the first stage, it imported foreign trains and components for assembly. Secondly, it purchased non-dealer’s components based on design drawings before assembly. Then it self-developed trains through research, joint-ventures and buyouts. At the fourth stage, it began to use domestically made components. And finally, a homemade bullet train model came into being.

Compared to the bullet train, the development of C919 cleared the first two hurdles and started from stage three. Foreign suppliers agreed to transfer technology to Chinese firms thanks to the deals made by COMAC.

However, the C919 and China’s large jetliner industry still face stern challenges. First, it will take another two years for the C919 to conduct trial flights before passing the 60,000-hour safe operation test. Second, large aircraft manufacturing demands high level of team work. Players in metallurgy, mechanics, electronics and heavy industry have to stay in tune and help beef up passenger aircraft production.

China is world’s second-largest aviation market, which is expected to overtake the US to top the world in 2030. In the following years, China will purchase thousands of passenger airplanes worth hundreds of billions of dollars. China has merely dipped its toe in the huge market with the rollout of the C919. China’s involvement will reshape the market into a triangle competition, which is better than the current duopoly of Boeing and Airbus. No one can deny the possibility that China will be able to replicate its success of the bullet train for the passenger plane.

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