Boeing 787-8 on approach to Chiang Mai International Airport in Thailand Photo: iStock

After two major air crashes, Boeing is experiencing the kind of crisis it has never endured before, and the company’s clumsy responses have only made things worse. Now, Boeing faces multiple dilemmas: all major airlines have grounded Boeing 737-Max series aircraft, delivery of new aircraft has been suspended worldwide, and the company remains locked in talks with Garuda Indonesia, which has reportedly threatened to cancel an order for 49 new 737-Max airliners.

Boeing, on the other hand, has been slow to provide a solution to the systems fault, first touted for introduction in April, but which has since been pushed back to the summer. As a result, Boeing’s stock price has plummeted 13.71% since March, and output on its production line has been cut by 20%.

It is unlikely that the aircraft maker’s crisis can be quickly resolved. Even if the system problems, as Boeing claims, can be fixed by the summer, the aircraft then must face the process of re-certification. As a result of the two disasters and the fatal problems they may have revealed, the new certification process is bound to be more strict as well as more time-consuming. Even if all goes well, Boeing will probably have to wait at least until the end of this year before it will have a chance to regroup.

The crisis for Boeing offers huge market opportunities for competitors, including Chinese manufacturers of large aircraft. And with the Airbus order books filled for the next decade, there is undoubtedly room for growth in China’s passenger plane sector.

According to Comac’s annual market forecast (2018-2037) released at last year’s Zhuhai Air Show, the fleet will grow at an average annual rate of 5.3% over the next 20 years, based on China’s GDP growth forecast. “China Market Forecast for Civil Aircraft 2015-2034” by China Aviation Industry says that China fleets will need to add 5,522 civilian passenger aircraft of all types between 2015 and 2034, including 4,580 large jet aircraft and 942 regional aircraft. Such exuberant demand, at a time when Boeing deliveries are doubtful, will certainly give the country’s major airlines good reason to consider their own research and development of large aircraft.

Although China’s self-developed C919 is still in the flight test phase and the CR929 has just finalized its overall design, the research, development, production, and sales of large passenger aircraft are not delivered from stock like other products. In most cases, it takes at least three years for large aircraft to be ordered and delivered.

For the C919, which has been undergoing test flying for nearly two years, there are now more than 800 orders. The first delivery is scheduled for 2021, and the aircraft is now fully engaged in test flight forensics. If it goes well, the forensics can be completed ahead of schedule and delivery may be brought forward. If Boeing continues to be in crisis and is unable to deliver aircraft on time, the C919 is bound to be more attractive to buyers.

In addition to orders already on the books, the upcoming C919 will create an excellent comparative opportunity to fully demonstrate its performance, particularly in terms of safety and service in comparison to products from widely-questioned Boeing. But being a latecomer, the C919 lacks market awareness and a proven sales and performance record. However, there are also some advantages associated with being a late arrival on the market. For example, with no proven history, the makers of China’s large aircraft will have to exercise caution throughout the development and production processes and in the adoption of new technology. Chinese manufacturers will never fall into the Boeing trap of rashly releasing new technology before it is proven.

At the same time, the market will also give latecomers a chance to prove themselves. Bombardier and Brazilian Airlines, the two previous biggest challengers in the passenger plane market, have given up, with Bombardier’s business being acquired by Airbus and Air Brazil’s E-Series aircraft opting to work with Boeing. This means that when opportunities arise in the market, China’s aircraft such as the C919 will be the only “third party” in the game. They will certainly attract customers and present buyers with more choices, challenging Boeing and Airbus and the two oligopoly passenger plane market pattern. This will then allow Chinese makers to lay solid foundations for the follow-up market assault from the larger CR929 passenger aircraft.

In addition, another image tarnished in the Boeing crisis is that of the famous Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). For a long time, the FAA has been known for its tightly managed and strict standards, which have seen its airworthiness standards become the international benchmarks. However, after the recent Boeing accidents, it was revealed in the media that in the earlier certification process for the Boeing 737-Max airliners, the FAA acted perfunctorily to meet Boeing’s needs to launch products as soon as possible. Many certification processes were even handed over to Boeing itself. This has dealt a serious blow to the FAA’s credibility, and the European Aviation Safety Agency has publicly said it will no longer trust FAA assessments. This is undoubtedly an excellent opportunity for large Chinese aircraft to break the blockade imposed by European and American airworthiness authorities.

In recent decades, airworthiness standards have become an important weapon for European and American countries to suppress and control aircraft manufacturing companies in other countries. Because of this, ARJ-21, the first airliner independently developed by China, suffered a heavy loss. Even after several years, it still failed to obtain FAA airworthiness certification and was unable to enter the market of the vast number of countries that trust the FAA. As a result, the development and sales of the aircraft have been greatly affected. Russian airliners face an even worse situation, with little chance of receiving airworthiness permits from Europe and the United States.

However now the FAA’s credibility and image are being challenged, and relations with its European counterparts are in question.

In order to solve the Boeing crisis, the FAA even went so far as to invite the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to participate in the next step of Boeing 737-Max system upgrade certification work. This will greatly promote the participation of the CAAC in the FAA certification system, the mutual recognition of the airworthiness certification systems between China and the United States, and the certification of airworthiness of large aircraft in China.

This is doubtless a good chance for China to break the duopoly of European and American airworthiness systems and further promote its own certification system to establish new standards so that Chinese passenger aircraft no longer have to find a way to pass European and American certification.

But Boeing will not sit idly by, and China’s big aircraft are still in their infancy. In the face of current market opportunities, China’s aviation industry should mobilize as a whole, accelerate the progress of China’s large aircraft research and development, and promote the establishment of Chinese standards in the aviation world.

This article was first published on ATimesCN.com and translated to English by Xu Yuenai.

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Song Tao

Song Tao is a researcher for the multimedia platform and think-tank Asia Pacific Daily. He is an experienced military commentator and writer on military topics.

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