China aviation set to lead the world

With Boeing and Airbus in battle over the world's second-biggest economy's huge market for aircraft, domestic players are pushing to make their mark with the government set to build 82 airports in just four years.

The C919 aircraft is being developed by Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China. Mike Clarke / AFP
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Last month, aircraft manufacturer Boeing and China Eastern Airlines celebrated the delivery of the 1,000th Boeing aeroplane for China, a 737-800 emblazoned with a daring peacock livery.

At the event, executives said the outlook for the industry is as bright as the aircraft's paint job - Boeing experts said in September China's commercial aircraft fleet would grow to 5,980 by the end of 2031 compared with 1,910 by the end of 2011.

Compare this with North America, where the fleet is set to grow to 8,830 from 6,650 over the same period, and you see where the growth is.

In another forecast, the brokerage Guangda Securities forecast that China would need about 3,000 aircraft between now and 2026, creating demand for some 6,500 aircraft engines worth US$65 billion (Dh238.74bn).

More than two-thirds of the world's airports under construction last year were in China.

The civil aviation administration of China, or Caac, said the country planned to build 82 airports and expand 101 existing ones across the country from 2011 to 2015.

Last year, the national development and reform commission, the country's top economic planning agency, approved 24 projects to build new airports and expand existing airports, with an estimated investment of about 100 billion yuan (Dh59.18bn).

At the moment, China has to import its commercial aircraft and most of the aircraft owned by Chinese airlines must be repaired and maintained overseas. That could be about to change.

There are hopes of a major boost to the industry from a significant aircraft engine research and development project, which is now under review by China's cabinet, the State Council.

The programme, which is focused particularly on technology, design and materials related to aircraft engine manufacturing, is currently going through approval procedures in the state council, and it may be approved shortly. The programme is expected to have an estimated capital injection of at least 100 billion yuan.

"At present, China's aircraft engine design and manufacturing have weak links in terms of materials, key parts, manufacturing equipment, processing precision and measurements," an unnamed professor at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics told the Xinhua news agency.

Among the companies taking part are Shenyang Liming Aero-Engine Group, Avic Xi'an Aero-Engine Group and research institutes, including Beijing University.

China's domestic engine industry is also advancing. The China North Industries Group recently said one of its units had developed a 36,000 tonne extruder that will allow it to produce turbine disks in much bigger numbers than is currently possible.

Central to China's domestic aviation ambitions is the country's homemade narrow body commercial airliner, the C919.

The C919 is a 168-seat, single-aisle, medium-range aircraft designed to give Boeing's 737 and Airbus' A320 a run for their money.

After the Zhuhai air show last year, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) announced it had received an additional 50 orders for the plane, which is due for delivery in 2016, after tests next year. Total orders received so far are 380.

Comac will bring a mock-up of the C919 to Aviation Expo China in September at the China National Convention Centre in Beijing, and "probably some more C919 orders, but it depends on the business development situations", Lu Zheng, the marketing and sales director at Comac, told local media.

"Comac is developing new designs for the ARJ21 regional jet to fit the demand of a business class and other demands," said Mr Lu.

Honeywell signed a $11.3bn contract last year with Comac to provide parts for the C919's flight system, which includes the auxiliary power unit, flight controls, and the wheel and brake systems.

GE Aviation Systems and Aviation Industry Corp of China Systems will provide the avionics core processing system, display system and on-board maintenance system for the C919 aircraft. GE will also provide the engines.

While China's domestic industry looks set for take-off, it remains an attractive market for aviation machinery, from parts to aircraft to maintenance. The gradual winding down of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan under the administration of the US president Barack Obama means US military spending is on the wane.

Last month, Koninklijke Ten Cate, the Dutch maker of airframe parts for the Pentagon's Reaper combat drone, said China was becoming a market for its advanced composite aircraft parts faster than expected.

Ten Cate, which provides composite parts for the Airbus SAS A350 long-range airliner and materials for body armour, has been forced to look to other markets to make up for greater sluggishness in the United States.

China's prospects were boosted when China Aviation Industry General Aircraft, based in Zhuhai, acquired the light-aircraft maker Cirrus Industries two years ago.

"The purchase of this company by Chinese owners opened that market," Frank Spaan, the business development director at Ten Cate, which makes parts for the single-engine plane, told Bloomberg.

The company is building test structures for Commercial Aircraft Corp of China, the developer of the C919 airliner, to secure a long-term contract. Ten Cate also operates in China through its relationship with Fokker Technologies, a Dutch company acquired in 2008 by a private equity group led by Candover Investments.

"We would expect later in the year to have our first real sales in China," Mr Spaan said.

"That is more quickly than we ever would have expected."

Earlier this month, Stefan Magirius, the president of GKN's Chinese subsidiary, GKN Aerospace, said the UK company was evaluating the prospect of manufacturing aircraft components in China, and was targeting steady growth in its Chinese vehicle-part supply operations.

GKN was a pioneer among western automotive suppliers, having first entered the market in 1988.

"There is very good potential" in China's aviation sector, Mr Magirius told The Wall Street Journal. He said GKN Aerospace, which supplies body and engine parts to both Airbus and Boeing, was studying the Chinese market as it works on a "market-entry strategy".

Mr Magirius said low-altitude air space, which is not open yet in China, was sure to open at some point in time, and that would provide lots of business opportunities for the small aircraft and helicopters segment.

This follows a commitment in 2010 by the Caac to liberalise the country's low-altitude airspace by 2015.

GKN has indicated it plans to extend its partnership with Hafei Aviation Industry, with which it collaborates to make engine parts for Honeywell International. These are used in systems for business aircraft and helicopters.

It seems aviation in the Dragon economy is set to soar.