Comac could be 'genuine' rival to Boeing and Airbus in 10 years, Iata chief says

Aviation supply chain problems could extend to 2027, director general Willie Walsh says

Iata director general Willie Walsh, right, with outgoing board of governors chair Yvonne Makolo, left, and her successor Pieter Elbers, centre, at the end of the association's annual meeting in Dubai. Photo: Iata
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Chinese jet maker Comac could rival the western duopoly of Boeing and Airbus in the next 10 years to 15 years as supply chain woes persist in the aviation industry, the International Air Transport Association's chief has said.

The supply chain problems could potentially stretch to 2027, director general Willie Walsh said at the association's Middle East regional briefing in Dubai on Tuesday.

“It will take time for Comac to be a genuine competitor on the global scale [but] I believe they will get there. You're talking 10, 15 years … it's a longer time frame but I definitely believe they will get there,” he said.

“Their ambition is great to see and in my experience of China, when they have that ambition, they have determination and they will deliver.”

However, for Shanghai-based Comac to play a major role in international markets, it will need to obtain aircraft certification from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the Federal Aviation Authority in the US, which will be a “challenge” and will take time.

“If I were Comac, I would take my time doing that because the domestic market in China is so big that they can afford to concentrate on China as their primary, or even sole market, for years to come before they need to look at expanding internationally because, already, the orders they have for delivery to Chinese carriers and Chinese leasing companies is quite significant,” he said.

Convincing airlines to opt for Comac aircraft is not just about the price or performance of the aircraft but also about the availability of spare parts across the route networks they operate, Mr Walsh said.

Emirates airline president Tim Clark told the Iata meeting on Monday that Comac had a “golden opportunity” to take advantage of supply bottlenecks from legacy plane makers.

“Now is the time. They have a golden opportunity to move ahead and take advantage of the supply chain OEM legacy manufacturers that are existing today. They've got some way to go, they have to get their aircraft on to the European and American regulation,” he said.

“But knowing the Chinese, they're going to be very versatile and very quick in upgrading their standards of build and safety and propulsion that are currently provided in some respect by western technology. But they will probably get there. It's going to be interesting to see how they move that market.”

In May, Comac chairman He Dongfeng made a pitch to the Saudi Arabian market at the Future Aviation Forum in Riyadh as he highlighted the company's aircraft and how they could fit into the kingdom's ambitious plans to develop its aviation sector.

Aviation group Saudia Group also offered Comac the opportunity to set up an assembly line in Jeddah, amid deepening Saudi-China ties and the kingdom's push to develop its manufacturing industry, Saudia spokesman Abdullah Alshahrani told The National on the sidelines of the forum.

The group's airline, Saudia, is also in talks with the Chinese jet maker to better understand the specifications and performance of its C919 narrow-body aircraft, he said.

The discussions about Comac as a potential rival to the Boeing-Airbus duopoly comes at a time when airlines are struggling to meet soaring travel demand amid supply chain problems that have constrained capacity.

Boeing reassurances

During the Iata meeting, which was held in Dubai for the first time, airline chiefs expressed their frustration with delivery delays, parts shortages and engine production problems.

Aviation bosses said they were confident Boeing would overcome its current crisis as its recovery is necessary to maintain competition in the plane-making market.

Stephanie Pope, the head of Boeing's commercial planes division, flew in for the Iata meeting in Dubai.

“She came in to reassure her customers of her determination to address their issues. I know she's been having direct conversations with all of her customers,” Mr Walsh said during a press briefing.

“Everybody wants to see them [Boeing] succeed, and everybody wants to see her succeed in her role, and we'll support her and the team at Boeing because it is in our interest.”

Manufacturing woes at Boeing and defects on Pratt & Whitney engines that power Airbus narrow-body jets are limiting the delivery of planes.

“Boeing clearly has disappointed a lot of its customers. Airbus see themselves in a stronger position because their major competitor has been damaged recently. I don't think either of the big OEMs are serving their customers are well as they could be,” Mr Walsh said.

“That's why it's important for us to see strong competition between Boeing and Airbus and it's the reason everybody in the industry wants to see Boeing address their issues and regain their credibility and status in the industry to be an effective competitor to Airbus – we need that competition.”

Industry debates

Over the three-day meeting, from June 2 to June 4, airline bosses also debated the biggest issues facing the industry – from decarbonisation to technology that predicts turbulence.

Nick Careen, Iata's senior vice president for operations, safety and security, told media briefing at the annual gathering that “there is no silver bullet when it comes to turbulence”.

“But more information, more data will definitely improve the situation,” he said.

Airlines are battling to minimise turbulence risks after two serious incidents last month.

One man died and dozens of passengers were injured on a Singapore Airlines flight on May 21 while 12 were injured when a Qatar Airways flight encountered severe turbulence a few days later.

The airline industry is witnessing an increase in turbulence but instances of severe turbulence are “still rare” and their severity has not been on the rise, Mr Careen said.

Aviation executives also engaged in heated debates with energy producers about efforts to reach the industry's goal of reducing net emissions to zero by 2050, mainly through the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

“Total's net earnings last year were $23.2 billion. The whole airline industry's net earnings in 2023 were $27 billion,” Mr Walsh said during a session on sustainability on Tuesday.

The head of France's TotalEnergies' aviation and marine business said the company was committed to helping the aviation industry achieve its goal.

“Thank you for raising our excellent results,” Louise Tricoire shot back, noting that TotalEnergies does reinvest a major portion of its profit in renewable energy research.

“So, I don't agree that we don't do our part with SAF. We are doing our part.”

Updated: June 06, 2024, 12:06 PM