It is the first major air show to be held in Mainland China since the coronavirus pandemic first began in early 2020.
Understandably, organisers of this year’s Airshow China in Zhuhai, and to some extent the Chinese government, were keen to showcase the best of the homegrown aerospace industry, even if the show was largely limited to the domestic audience.
What the six-day show lacked in headline aircraft orders, it made up for with a strong aftermarket and services showing, coupled with hints of how the fledgling local aerospace industry is pushing ahead.
More importantly, the show – widely seen as China’s most prestigious – is set against the backdrop of long-simmering geopolitical tensions between the West and China.That uneasy relationship has coloured much of the rhetoric coming from the Chinese side.
A SIGNIFICANT NO-SHOW
While there was much to see during the show, including a range of combat aircraft and unmanned air vehicles, homegrown commercial offerings were few and far between.
In fact, a highly-anticipated appearance by what is deemed a source of Chinese pride and joy did not materialise.
In the days leading up to the air show, it became apparent that the developmental Comac C919 narrowbody – touted as China’s answer to the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 – would not be appearing.
It is a significant development given that 2021 is widely seen as a critical year for the programme. Comac expects to obtain type certification for the C919 by this year, allowing it to commence deliveries to launch customer China Eastern Airlines.
No reason was officially given by the Shanghai-based airframer for the no-show, though reports just before the event opened suggested that Comac is likely to miss production and certification deadlines, throwing the possibility of a 2021 service entry into doubt.
A Reuters report on 27 September, citing unnamed sources familiar with the programme, suggests that tightened US export rules – implemented late in 2020 – were causing delays. Though a Chinese aircraft programme, the C919 is largely reliant on Western technologies: the aircraft is powered by two CFM International Leap-1C turbofans, for example.
In place of the actual aircraft, Comac put up a life-sized mock up of the C919 cabin at the show’s exhibition hall. At the aircraft display stands, it was the CBJ – a corporate derivative of the ARJ21 regional jet – that was being showcased.
Compatriot AVIC was noticeably quiet about its developmental MA700 turboprop, a similarly Western-dependent aircraft programme that has seen its timeline slip further to the right. FlightGlobal recently reported that the programme faces an uncertain future, owing to issues with the export permits related to the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW150C engine, a pair of which power the aircraft.
LIGHT ON HEADLINE ORDERS; HEAVY ON RHETORIC
Perhaps as an indication of the market sentiment, this year’s Airshow China failed to notch any significant headline orders, even for domestic programmes like the C919 or ARJ21.
But never mind that the orders did not come streaming in: what the show lacked in headline orders, it made up for with plenty of rhetoric.
The Chinese government doubled down on the narrative that China was “building a powerful civil aviation industry”.
As a statement from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) on the show’s opening day put it: “The construction of a powerful civil aviation nation… highlights China’s historical leap from a major air transport market to an air transport superpower.”
Chinese state media had a field day extolling the virtues of the indigenous aerospace industry.
A piece from state-owned Global Times, referencing news reports about C919 delays, went so far as to claim that the programme was not being held back by US export restrictions, contrary to “Western media reports”.
Instead, it believes that “China’s jetliners have a bright future, no matter how much the supply chain landscape changes”.
Western aerospace companies, too, were quick – in press statements – to emphasise how important the Chinese market is to them. China, they say, is headed for a rebound and will continue to be the largest single aerospace market globally.
Pratt & Whitney reiterated its commitment to the Chinese market, as it marked the fifth year of its PW1100G geared turbofan operating with mainland Chinese carriers.
While the Chinese market’s power is undeniable, these statements sit uneasily amid long-simmering geopolitical tensions between the West and China, some of which have had an effect on the aviation industry.
For one, Beijing has also stayed mum about plans to lift the grounding of the 737 Max. China, which was the first in the world to ground the type following two fatal crashes, is the only major economy that has not returned the twinjet to service, prompting speculation that geopolitics are behind its reticence.
AFTERMARKET AND SERVICES HOLD STRONG
While there were no aircraft orders disclosed at this year’s show, the aftermarket and services sector held their own, notching several key announcements.
Boeing, for instance, announced it will open two 767 freighter conversion lines with Guangzhou-based MRO provider GAMECO. It is the first time a Chinese MRO has joined the Boeing Converted Freighter (BCF) programme for the 767-300.
The 767-300BCF lines add to GAMECO’s three existing 737-800BCF conversion lines, underscoring the immense potential of the freighter conversion market.
CFM disclosed aftermarket contracts with Chinese carrier Air Travel for its Leap-1A turbofan, which powers the Airbus A320neo family. The company, a joint venture between Safran and GE Aviation, is also looking to expand Leap engine MRO capabilities with its local partners.
SOME DEALS INKED AT AIRSHOW CHINA 2021
Ameco extends long-term component support contract with Collins Aerospace for Air China’s fleet
Ameco signs APU maintenence with Shenzhen Airlines
GAMECO signs component support deals with Thales, Honeywell
CFM signs letter of intent with Air China to build up Leap engine MRO capabilities
GAMECO and cargo carrier YTO Airlines ink strategic cooperation for aircraft maintenance services