It now has a name: the CR 929-600. Say what you will about modern branding strategy, that name certainly works better than the “Chinese-Russian long-range widebody aircraft”, as Comac and United Aircraft (UAC) had previously described the project.
But the CR 929-600 is without doubt the first serious threat to the Airbus and Boeing duopoly in the lucrative market for commercial widebody airliners since the demise of the McDonnell Douglas MD-12 two decades ago.
Of course, that is not saying much.
Since the acquisition of McDonnell Douglas by Boeing in 1997, no industry or government has possessed the financial, technical and commercial audacity to challenge the pair in the market’s most prized segment.
As usurping Davids to the duopoly’s Goliaths, Comac and UAC make unlikely wielders of metaphorical slingshots. China wields enormous economic clout and Russia possesses technical brilliance inherited from the Soviet Union, but neither offers much in the way of recent programme management success.
On paper, the Comac C919 bears a disturbingly close resemblance to the performance and configuration of the A320neo, while the Irkut MC-21 aspires to best the comfort and economics of the Neo and the 737 Max 8, with greater cabin width, more sophisticated flight controls and lighter structural materials.
Yet neither is considered a serious threat by Airbus or Boeing. Rather, their Chinese and Russian counterparts will be overjoyed to make a profitable return. The C919 and MC-21 are a case study: is it possible to successfully leverage a protectionist domestic policy to secure orders, while getting to grips with the intricacies of airworthiness standards and the demands of mass production for the most sophisticated and regulated commercial products on the planet? The jury is out.
But the CR 929-600 is not a crazy idea. Combined, the duo have the technical prowess to build a competitive aircraft. China’s projected hunger for widebody capacity alone promises hundreds of orders, which should guarantee profitability. The project’s political masters also seem to accept reality, asking Western suppliers to bid the most competitive propulsion and systems technologies rather than growing their own.
If the CR 929-600 can navigate the political and industrial complexity of its bi-national heritage, it should become a minor threat in a segment of the market where Airbus and Boeing can ill-afford even a marginal new competitor.