Speaking to the Chinese media during his visit to Beijing last October, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia and China have much to gain from jointly developing a widebody airliner. He called for more joint Sino-Russian projects in space and aeronautics, as well as other high-technology spheres, stating that these may produce “huge economic effect for development of both countries.”
Over the last few years, both Russia and China have been importing more U.S.- and European-made aircraft. Putin acknowledged that, but pointed out that both China and Russia have large domestic air transport markets and, as big nations, “are able to and must have their own production of commercial airplanes.”
Putin flew to China aboard a VIP-configured Ilyushin Il-96-300–the four-engine jet that had once been proposed as platform for development of China’s so-called “Big Airplane” program. “The main point of Putin’s visit was to pitch Moscow’s renewed offer to Beijing of the Il-96 as the platform for development of a Chinese C929 widebody jet. The Il-96-300 has a maximum takeoff weight of 551,000 pounds and can carry 300 passengers. The newer Il-96-400 has an mtow of up to 595,000 pounds, but so far this design has materialized only as four freighter versions, each able to carry 128,000 pounds of cargo.
When Russia first offered the Il-96 to its neighbors, around 2006-2008, the Chinese were trying to select a suitable prototype for the “Big Airplane” program. But this process resulted in the newly formed Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac), which decided to concentrate its efforts on the C919 narrowbody before moving onto a widebody.
Now, with both the Chinese Airbus A320 assembly line and the C919 development progressing well, China has put the widebody back on the agenda. Comac is working on a concept for a twin-engine, twin-aisle jet designated as the C929.
Over the past 20 years China’s share in the global airliner fleet grew from 2 to 9 percent, and its proportion of the Asia Pacific fleet rose from 12 to 23 percent. In airline capacity terms, the Asia Pacific region leads the world with a 29 percent share, ahead of North America (26 percent) and Europe (25 percent).
The Avic group’s Aviation Industries Development Research Center of China (ADR) predicts 3,682 mainline passenger airliners and 901 regional aircraft sales in the 2011-2030 time frame. Released at last September’s Aviation Expo show in Beijing, ADR’s “China Market Outlook for Civil Aircraft 2011-2030” forecast that the Chinese passenger airliner fleet–1,506-unit-strong as of the end of 2010–will grow to 5,118 units in 2030. Deliveries will include 98 aircraft in the 400-seat-plus category, 406 in the 300-seat class (defined as 250 to 399 seats), 789 in the 200-seat class (181 to 249 seats), 2,458 in the 150-seat class (121 to 180 seats) and 413 in 110-seat class (101 to 120 seats). In addition, 517 large (61 to 100 seats) and 437 small, regional aircraft (30 to 60 seats) will go to the Chinese airlines.
At the show in Beijing, Avic development and research vice president Liao Quanwang was asked to what extent the forecast demand can be met by local airframers. “This should be a concern for all the Chinese people,” he said.
Today, domestic carriers in China prefer Airbus and Boeing products. In technical terms, claimed Liao, China’s ARJ21 and C919 aircraft could be of the same standard as Western models, since Chinese aerospace firms are already producing components and assemblies for Western partners.
“But the local manufacturers still have to learn a lot from Airbus and Boeing in marketing policy and improving their brands so to get better market appeal,” stated Liao. At the same time, it would be “natural” for the Chinese airframers to have a complete range of passenger jets in their portfolio, he said. “There is no question whether they will be producing airplanes larger than the C919; it is natural that they will,” he said.
Comac wants to be a global player, and to achieve this goal it knows it must have a complete range of airliners. In addition to meeting demand for intercontinental services, it sees market potential in providing high-capacity transports for domestic or intraregional routes–especially to take into account mounting slot shortages at China’s main airports.
Today, more than two thirds of Chinese airline passengers fly between airports 300 and 900 miles apart. In 2030 China’s domestic traffic (1.5 trillion passenger seat miles) will be similar to that of the U.S. By that time the share of 300- to 400-seaters in the Chinese fleet, in seat-mile terms, is expected to grow from the current 12 percent to 28.6 percent.
Mainland China’s three main hub airports–Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou–handle one third of all Chinese passengers traveling by air, totalling 180 million passengers in 2010. “Airport congestion considerations dictate larger capacity airplanes for these airports,” concluded ADR, reporting a 6.4-percent annual average growth between the main hubs in 2006-2010.
Then there are the special circumstances of the city of Urumchi, capital of Xinjiang province in western China. The city is being developed into a new powerhouse of industry and only air transport can efficiently connect it with the rest of the country.
Since the late 1980s, aging 350-seat Il-86s operated out of Urumchi to meet this demand. Reportedly, the four-engine Ilyushin was popular for its ruggedness and comfort, but after plans to retrofit it with more economical CFM56 engines fell through, the Russian giant was withdrawn from Chinese inventory due to its high fuel burn. But positive memories of the type may prompt China into joining forces with Russia on an Il-86 successor, or at least that’s what Vladimir Putin must be hoping.