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Comment: Technology overtures

Western aerospace companies are focused on China because it is the fastest-growing aviation market in the world and China's decision to develop 150-seat commercial aircraft has made western suppliers hungry to get a piece of the pie.

At the Aviation Expo in Beijing, there was a press conference to announce that Safran and GE Aviation will be getting China's AVIC Aircraft to make engine nacelles as part of a new joint venture. Normally, only GE's or Safran's China representatives would officiate at such an event. After all, an engine nacelle is only the cover that houses the engine.

But Safran and GE Aviation called in the big guns in an effort to woo the Chinese. GE Aviation and Safran chief executives Lorraine Bolsinger and Jean-Paul Herteman were there to address an audience that had more VIPs than journalists in attendance.

 © Billypix

Because GE had its top boss there, AVIC followed suit with its president, Lin Zuoming.

To make it abundantly clear what this event was really about, Safran and GE invited leaders from Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), the firm spearheading the 150-seat C919. Indeed, Herteman said specifically: "I hope we can work together on the C919 project." Bolsinger said the aim of the venture was to produce nacelles for western aircraft and the C919.

Comac vice-president and C919 chief designer Wu Guanghui then addressed the audience and highlighted the fact that Safran and other western engine-makers are also pitching for the contract to supply C919 engines.

A decision is due towards the year-end and Safran is teaming up with GE under their CFM International banner to propose the CFM Leap-X engine.

The C919 will be powered by western engines, but China is putting a high priority on developing its own engine technology. China can already build aircraft, but lacks the ability to produce key systems. Even its top military fighter jets are powered by Russian engines.

It is, of course, unclear whether or not the C919 programme will be commercially successful. Either way, the question for western aerospace companies is how much technology to transfer in a return for access to the fast-growing Chinese market.

As for the GE-Safran overture to China, it is also questionable whether giving China the opportunity to design and make engine nacelles will be enough to satisfy the country's appetite for engine technology in the immediate term.