Airbus Industrie is proposing to transfer part of its A320 aircraft series wing production to China, in a move intended to compensate for the recent demise of the Sino-European AE31X regional jet programme and to counter a similar offer of 717 wing work from Boeing.
The European consortium has been reviewing a range of manufacture options with Aviation Industries of China (AVIC), following the scrapping of the proposed AE31X joint development. Airbus has acknowledged that the focus of talks is not on a new aircraft, but about the transfer of technology from existing programmes to assist Chinese industry.
The "unanimous decision" to abandon the AE31X in favour of the A318 has upset Beijing, say Chinese insiders, despite public statements to the contrary. This and the subsequent termination of the Boeing MD-90 TrunkLiner project has thrown the future of AVIC's Xian and Shanghai plants into uncertainty. Boeing in response has offered China production of the 717 wing to supplement its existing supplier Hyundai.
The offer to establish a second A320 wing line in China is understood to be closely associated with Chris Geoghegan, former head of British Aerospace Airbus and one of three recently appointed strategic advisors to Airbus chief executive Noel Forgeard. Airbus' 20% partner BAe is the sole supplier of wings for all Airbus aircraft.
Airbus Industrie confirms that talks about joint manufacturing with China are under way. "We are in discussions with AVIC and the Chinese industry to explore co-operation possibilities about joint manufacturing of Airbus aircraft," it says.
It is thought the wing proposal was related to the visit of two AVIC and Civil Aviation Administration of China delegations to BAe's Filton and Chester plants in the UK last month. Forgeard more recently joined French prime minister Lionel Jospin on a visit to China, while a large UK aerospace delegation will accompany UK prime minister Tony Blair on his trip to Beijing later this month.
BAe's apparent willingness to make AVIC a second A320 wing supplier is believed to be linked to the UK manufacturer's manoeuvring to play a larger role in the planned new Airbus single corporate entity.
The UK, furthermore, is keen to curry favour with Beijing, having taken the lead in a push to sell the new Rolls-Royce Trent 500-powered A340-500/600 to Chinese carriers.
Linked to the China offer is the need for Airbus' partners to expand their production capacity, with aircraft deliveries this year set to increase by 30% to 234 jets and by a further 20% to 285 in 1999. With the addition of the new 107-seat A318, the European consortium says production of the single-aisle A320 family could climb to 24 aircraft a month by 2002.
The offer of A320 wing production to China is likely to raise more than a few eyebrows, particularly given the sensitivity of wing technology. One Airbus source, however, sought to allay such fears, noting, "-it's one thing getting them to manufacture the wing, it's quite another to get them to design it."
Source: Flight International