Aeronautics: China's Airbus, too many dads
24 June 2009
The inauguration of the first ever A320 to be assembled outside Europe was a big step for Chinese aviation and a milestone in a market much coveted by the West. To such an extent that in France, Germany and Britain, tempers have been frayed.
Fine weather, a packed house, and VIPs everywhere – it was a perfect setting for the ceremony to present the first Airbus A320 assembled in the only EADS factory outside Europe. China still holds the promise of undreamed of opportunities, and Airbus has found a springboard for an aviation market that remains dynamic, in spite of the financial crisis. Nine months after its official opening, 1,000 guests gathered in a hangar at the factory in Tianjin to see its first completed plane delivered to the Sino-European leasing company, Dragon Aviation. The aircraft will shortly enter into service for Sichuan Airlines on regular flights between Chengdu, Beijing and Shanghai.
Nationalistic trumpet blowing
By all accounts, the new production facility will be good for China. "We will establish a strong future for the Chinese aviation industry with the help of the Chinese aviation market," announced Airbus CEO, Germany's Thomas Enders. Completed on tight schedule in just over a year, the assembly plant at Tianjin (which is 115 kilometres east of Beijing) was officially opened in September 2008. Built to seal a deal for a record order of 150 planes, which was signed in Beijing at the end of 2005, it will also play a key role in establishing what Enders terms "a long-term strategic position." Today, Airbus has 40% of the Boeing-dominated Chinese aviation market, which is experiencing double-digit growth – and it has its sights set on 50%.
So is the project a European success? The inauguration of the first Airbus to be made in China was marked by a cacophony of nationalistic trumpet blowing, with Europeans climbing the podium to settle old scores. Eager to avoid being upstaged by Paris and Berlin, the British ambassador to China, William Geoffroy Ehrman, set the ball rolling when he announced that there were already 200 airliners powered by Rolls-Royce engines flying in China. German Secretary of State Hartmut Schauerte responded to this expression of nationalistic hubris with a declaration that emphasized how proud he was "to see the German industrial model reproduced in China.” Then came the turn of French ambassador, Hervé Ladsous, who – in the absence of the sorely missed French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who stayed away to attend Nicolas Sarkozy's addresss at Versailles – deliberately overlooked any German contribution when he affirmed that the project "was a fine example of Franco-Chinese and Sino-European cooperation." In an interview outside the ceremony, he later added that “France had been the driving force behind the process from the beginning.” In a word, the atmosphere was a little strained and marked by patriotic sparring – a testament to the importance of the Chinese market in a sector in the grip of a global recession. In spite of doubts about their finances and the slowdown caused by the economic crisis, Chinese airlines are continuing to increase their capacity. According to the head of Airbus China, Laurence Barron, approximately 3,000 planes with 100 seats or more will be needed by Chinese airlines over the next 20 years. The sheer scale of this figure is enough to develop a potential for conflict between the different countries of the European aviation group, with ambassadors battling for a share of the limelight.
But we must not imagine that China will be happy to remain a simple customer for Western aircraft companies. As in other technological sectors (railways, energy, telecommunications), Beijing plans to rapidly develop its ability to produce international class civil aircraft. In 2008, the Chinese government authorised the launch of the China Commercial Aircraft Company (Comac), which aims to deliver the first twin-engine jet to be fully manufactured in China, the ARJ21, by 2010. With a capacity for 90 passengers, the ARJ21 is unlikely to trouble the industry's big hitters. But Comac is also planning to launch its first large capacity wide-bodied jet, the C919, in partnership with the Chinese aviation conglomerates Avic I and Avic II, within the next eight years. In as much as these conglomerates are also shareholders in the plant at Tianjin (where Airbus holds a 51% stake), it is obvious that China aims to take advantage of technology transfers.
There have already been a number of incidents of attempted espionage at Airbus in Tianjin. However, all of this does not seem to bother the managing director of the plant Jean-Luc Charles. "There is not much in the way of technical innovation on the assembly line. Aviation is a sector that requires a lot of patience, and it's not easy to copy planes." However, the Chinese have shown a surprising ability to quickly penetrate markets that were thought to be the exclusive property of Western countries. So are we likely to see Chinese planes in the medium term? We will have to wait eight years to find out. In the meantime, Airbus should do its best to fill up its order book in China.