GKN-Comac deal for C919 stabilisers hits ‘impasse’

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GKN Aerospace's talks with Comac on supplying horizontal stabilisers for the developmental C919 airliner have reached "a bit of an impasse", says chief executive Marcus Bryson.

At a pre-Paris air show briefing on developments at the UK-headquartered structures and engine components maker, Bryson said negotiations with Comac have been "slow, slow". At this point, "we don't know where it's going to go", he admits, adding that he suspects that the Chinese manufacturer is gradually deciding to "go it alone" rather than work too closely with Western suppliers.

Discussions on a GKN-Comac joint venture to produce composite horizontal stabilisers for the single-aisle airliner go back to May 2012, and the two signed an agreement to pursue the idea at Airshow China in November.

But Bryson sees China as a "long play" and expects GKN to find a way to participate as a partner in that market. If the structures connection with Comac does not come through, says Bryson, GKN's engines unit may be its route to China. That business, now called GKN Aerospace Engine Systems, was last year transformed at a stroke into the world's third-biggest tier-one engine partner, with the acquisition of Volvo Aero, and it is active in most civil engine programmes.

China, says Bryson, is going through a process of deciding what type of aircraft industry it wants to have, and how to structure that industry's relationships with Western suppliers. This is inevitably going to be a long process, and Bryson stresses that in any case a Comac C919 connection was never expected to "add much" to the top or bottom lines in the next 10 years.

He takes heart from the experience of his counterparts in GKN's automotive equipment division. That unit, GKN's biggest business, first got involved in China in the mid-1980s, but only recently did the Chinese domestic market begin to realise its volume potential - and, today, more cars are sold in China than in North America.