China and Russia planning new wide-body airliner


The feasibility study for a future Sino-Russian aircraft will be finished “within a few months” according to Mikhail Pogosyan, president or United Aircraft Corp (UAC). If implemented, such collaboration between UAC and COMAC would end the duopoly of Airbus and Boeing in the wide-body long-range aircraft market.

The project was formally launched in May 2014 when UAC and COMAC signed an agreement in the presence of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, after three years of negotiations. Now, the goal is to design a 400-seat long-range aircraft that may compete with the Airbus A330 and the Boeing 787. The targeted entry into service of this aircraft – dubbed “2020” – is between 2023 and 2025.

This collaboration was the only possible choice for both countries according to Boris Rybak, the director of the Russian aviation think-tank Infomost. Indeed, if China wanted to compete in that market-segment, it had to find an ally. Today there are only three wide-body long-range manufacturers, the USA, Europe and Russia. China had to join one of them. “The USA and Boeing have always been reluctant to cooperate with other partners”, Rybak says, and China already had an agreement with UAC in military aviation. That is why COMAC chose UAC. However, if both companies may collaborate in the long-range sector, they remain competitors in the single-aisle airplane market with the Russian MS-21 and the Chinese C919.

Richard Aboulafia – VP analysis at the Teal Group, has another, more brutal, interpretation: “The reaction of a loser government to a bleak economic outlook is to turn inward, but also to turn to the only other big authoritarian country, China!”

According to various sources, the future wide-body aircraft will be based on the Pratt & Whitney-motorized Ilyushin Il-96 design. Actually, it seems that Russia will bring its knowledge and China will bring the main part of the estimated $7-12 billion development budget. Besides, the future airplane will be assembled in China. The new aircraft will have to bring some major updates to the Il-96 if it wants to be competitive with the A350 and the Boeing 787.

Both airplanes benefit from the latest innovations in terms of fuel efficiency, complex design, advanced composite materials, and greater reliability. They can also rely on an extensive MRO network all around the globe. Thus, the Chinese-Russian aircraft will have a lot to prove on all those fronts. That’s why the choice to base the future aircraft on the four-engine Il-96 is doubtful since the market is increasingly in favour of twin-engine configuration. As La Tribune recalls, Four-engine aircraft are notoriously more expensive to use and maintain. Also, some commentators fear that the 2020 project will faces the same problems as other “state-imposed aircraft” programmes such as Russia’s Yak-42, Tu-154, An-24 or MS-21… Once again, Aboulafia has his own interpretation: “Russian-Chinese plans for a joint 400-seat twin aisle jet will be built by two state-owned companies, so this plan guarantees”! However, Aviation Week highlights that the new aircraft will arrive at a moment when airlines will need replacement for the A330. This new aircraft might then benefit from breakthrough technologies, notably in term of propulsion compared to the B787, launched a decade ago and not announced to be “re-engined” so far. Besides, Boris Rybak thinks it is still possible to design a twin-engine aircraft based on the Il-96.

The 2020 project aims at delivering aircraft not only to Russian and Chinese markets but also for export. Therefore, competitiveness will be key: Chinese companies will not accept buying an underperforming aircraft, contrary to Russian airlines…as Rybak tells La Tribune. The good news for the project is that by 2033, according to UAC, China will need 1,000 airliners among the 8,000 needed in the world. For his part, Pogosyan hopes that his company will then take up to 10% of this market…

Republished with permission from ADIT – The Bulletin.