The journey marked a milestone for China’s aerospace manufacturer COMAC: the first long-distance inter-city test flight for its commercial jetliner, the C919.
Officials in Beijing hope the plane will one day rival the workhorses of the sky — Boeing’s 737 and the Airbus A320.
But nothing happens fast in the world of aircraft manufacturing.
COMAC’s narrow body C919 has been under development for over a decade and is not expected to officially go into production until 2021 at the earliest.
Even so, four Chinese leasing firms have already reportedly signed orders for the first 130.
COMAC isn’t the only company seeking to cut itself a slice of the lucrative aircraft business, and China isn’t the only country talking up its aeronautical future.
United Aircraft Corp, the Russian Government-backed aerospace and defence firm, is also testing a medium-range passenger jet, the Irkut MC-21.
Aerospace consultant and Aviationweek columnist Dr Kevin Michaels said neither the Russians nor the Chinese pose a major threat to the long-standing Boeing/Airbus duopoly — at least, not yet.
But he believed COMAC could one day prove a formidable competitor.
“This is China’s opportunity to really learn how to build and support jetliners,” he says.
“They have found a lot of Western partners to make the systems and the engines on [the C919].
“But they are probably at least a decade away from having a significant impact on Boeing and Airbus.”
While COMAC and United Aircraft Corp are ostensibly rivals, they have formed a special consortium to jointly work on another project: a long range, wide body airliner dubbed the CRAIC C929. It’s flagged for completion in 2028.
“Presumably by then they will have learned much more about the jetliner business,” says Dr Michaels
Vinay Bhashkara, a senior business analyst with Airways Magazine, says he sees the collaboration as mutually beneficial.
“Russia has the technical history and the expertise and some really strong engineers,” he says.
“China has tonnes and tonnes of cash and a massive domestic market they can soft-launch their products into, and kind of force domestic carriers to buy.”
Africa, he says, is likely to be an immediate sales focus.
“China has done an incredible job of building business ties,” Mr Bhashkara says.
“So as Africa undergoes its own economic boom, as many predict, in the way Asia did in the last part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st, who are they more likely to buy from?
“Are they more likely to buy from Boeing and Airbus, or are they more likely to buy from their Chinese business partners?”
A series of own goals
But nothing about the future of aviation production is guaranteed.
The development of new aircraft models is expensive and complex.
And, as the super-sonic Concorde famously proved, even state-of-the-art engineering and cutting edge design can’t ensure long-term success.
In fact, Airbus is currently in a holding pattern over the future of its one-time golden child — the Airbus A380.
Dubbed “the future of aviation”, the A380 was the largest commercial passenger plane in the world when it first took to the skies in 2005.
After a promising start, interest from global aviation carriers began to fade.
“Airbus felt that we were going to be in the future of mega-airports where we would need large aircraft like the A380 to handle capacity constraints at those airports,” Dr Michaels says.
It was a flawed prediction. Earlier this year, Airbus announced it was on the verge of abandoning production altogether, only to grant the “super jumbo” a reprieve after Dubai-based carrier Emirates made an eleventh-hour purchase of 36 new planes.
Despite that deal, Dr Michaels believes the A380 project will continue to struggle with orders and be a burden to the manufacturer.
Boeing, on the other hand, made a different bet.
“Boeing’s vision … was a future where more people would want to travel point to point, they would not want to go through major hub airports,” Dr Michaels says.
“Fundamentally, Boeing’s vision was the correct vision.”
That explains why sales of the smaller A320 and A350 have been strong, despite a lack of commercial interest in the giant 600-seat capacity A380.
“I think there’s a faction in Airbus that really believes the future is still on its side, but that they brought the A380 to the market too soon,” Dr Michaels says.
“I think they are hoping they can put it on life support and that the macro factors will shift in their favour.”
What goes up must also come down
The trials and tribulations of the A380 should be good news for Airbus’ arch-rival, Boeing.
But 2018 is also shaping up as a difficult year for the US-based manufacturer.
Boeing has been in a protracted trade dispute with the much smaller Canadian manufacturer Bombardier, trying to keep Bombardier’s new C Series planes from gaining a larger share of the highly profitable US market.
But in late January a US trade panel ruled in Bombardier’s favour, accepting the company’s right to supply aircraft to the American carrier Delta Air Lines.
The Canadian manufacturer also partnered with Airbus, with the European group acquiring a 50.01 per cent stake in the C Series program for no outlay.
Mr Bhashkara says the deal gives these non-US partners a powerful advantage over Boeing.
“It’s a really effective, small mainline jet — a great technical product,” he says.
“Adding Airbus’s sales might, global distribution network and even global parts and support network to the C Series product is going to be a killer combination.”
According to Dr Michaels, the long and acrimonious trade dispute with Bombardier cost Boeing in other ways.
“Boeing was probably the favourite to sell the next generation [of] fighters to Canada,” he says.
“Because they went after one of the icons of Canada, they created ill will there.”
Boeing also damaged its relations with the UK, he said, because the wings for Bombardier’s C Series are fabricated in Northern Ireland.
Then there’s the US carrier, Delta.
“Delta were going to be hit with a tariff on its aircraft if Boeing was successful. And that angered Delta so much that in a recent order, they chose the Airbus A320neo over the Boeing 737. So, it has hit them in many ways,” he said.
It’s safe to imagine both Boeing and Airbus will be looking for less turbulence and clearer skies as they fly on through 2018.
Despite their recent miscalculations, and in spite of the threat from potential future rivals from China and Russia, their duopoly seems solid.
But the history of aviation shows how quickly things can change.
Defunct manufacturers such as Britain’s De Havilland, America’s Douglas Aircraft Company and Fokker in the Netherlands all attest to the golden rule of aeronautics — what goes up, must eventually come down.