Will airlines enjoy the ‘craic’ and sign-up for new widebody airliner?

A new joint venture has been established between Chinese and Russian aircraft manufacturers with the goal of creating a new 280-seat widebody aircraft. But the question is… will anyone outside of those two countries actually order it?

China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Co (CRAIC) is a joint venture between Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) and Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) and the Shanghai-based business will shortly commence the preliminary design phase of an intercontinental widebodied airliner offering a range of around 12,000km. The aircraft, which would compete directly with Airbus and Boeing, could enter the market as early as 2025, according to the most conservative estimates.

“We will cooperate sincerely with UAC, unite as one, and strive to make the programme a model of Sino-Russian cooperation,” says Jin Zhuanglong, chairman, COMAC. “The establishment of the joint venture symbolises the important progress made in the China-Russia long-range widebody aircraft programme.”

“We will follow the latest international mainstream airworthiness standards, build more competitive long-range widebody aircraft, and strive to provide customers with better service and make new contributions to global aviation market,” he adds.

Historically, aircraft programmes from both countries have failed to really take-off in international markets bar a few sales here and there, mainly into nations with trading and political links. But, with the integration of western suppliers into the airframe and engine mix latest generation aircraft certainly have a stronger appeal with international airlines.

The Sukhoi SSJ-100 SuperJet has certainly made some progress with its placement in Latin America with Mexican low-cost carrier InterJet and more recently in Europe with Irish regional carrier CityJet; a deal that has actually seen the aircraft become deployed under an ACMI lease with a first flag carrier (Brussels Airlines) outside of Russia. Now much is expected from the COMAC C919 and Irkut Corporation MC-21 airliners, while the much-delayed Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) has secured a commitment from airlines in the United States of America (USA).

The C919, a 158-seat narrowbody to the rival the A320 and 737, made its maiden flight from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport on May 5, 2017 and has already caught the attention of the world’s low-cost airlines who could drive down unit prices with bumper aircraft orders, albeit realistically China will remain the main market for sales. Among its 570 aircraft orderbook from 23 different customers are just two from outside China, a firm commitment from lessor GECAS and an MoU from Thailand’s City Airways, an airline currently grounded by local authorities.

Although the bosses of both AirAsia and Ryanair have gone on record highlighting they would not rule the C919 out of future aircraft request for proposals, it will take a lot to divert them away from Airbus and Boeing. However, with China expected to overtake the US as the world’s largest aviation market by the middle of the next decade and more than $1 trillion of new aircraft expected to be ordered by the nation’s airlines over the next 20 years, a successful home programme would certainly impact the established manufacturers. In fact COMAC aims to take a third of the Chinese narrowbody market by 2035.

UAC will follow COMAC with the maiden flight of the MC-21-300 in the coming weeks or months. The aircraft, like the C919, aims to compete in the short-haul arena, but has been designed at the higher end of the spectrum with seating for between 163 passengers in a standard two-class arrangement and up to 211 in an all-Economy configuration. A smaller version, the MC-21-200 is also on the table as a secondary variant seating 132-165 passengers. To date UAC has secured around 175 orders for the aircraft with Cairo Aviation, a business with previous links to Russia, the only customer outside of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).