This year will bring some fascinating developments for the “tin lovers” as two all-new mainline jets, one backed by the might of China and the other by Russia, enter the fray.

As outlined in Airline Business's latest special report, these new 150-seaters are both aimed squarely at the incumbent Airbus and Boeing single-aisles that have been fighting it out in a duopoly for nigh-on two decades.

China’s Comac C919 should fly before the year is out. The Russian Irkut MC-21 is due to break cover in the summer, and could also be airborne this year. Both are equipped with versions of the engines that power the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 Max and both are slated to enter service within a corresponding timeframe – by the end of 2018.

It is refreshing for the industry to witness the arrival of two apparently well-funded designs that can genuinely challenge the status quo in the narrowbody sector, although probably not for a while on a global scale. They are both state-backed and aimed initially at the easily won “captive customers” in their home markets. But if they are to pose a real threat – and be chosen by, rather than foisted upon, operators – the organisations that are developing them must offer more than the latest technology.

“Is there a good reason or reward for any airline to take the risk of the new designs?” asks DVB Bank’s Bert van Leeuwen. A similar question was levelled at the CSeries eight years ago when Bombardier launched its assault on the bottom end of the mainline jet market. In that case, Airbus moved quickly to see off the threat before it built a critical mass of orders.

Ironically, Airbus was the last aircraft manufacturer to battle into the mainstream, enduring almost two decades of struggle before finally being taken seriously by its peers.

Like these new single-aisles, “national project” was a label once placed on the original Airbus Industrie project, the A300B. Government-backed, this was developed both to meet European airlines’ need for a 300-seat “air bus” and to re-establish the region’s airliner manufacturing industry as a multinational partnership under a centralised management structure.

When it finally emerged in Toulouse in 1972, after years of political wrangling, it was viewed as a bit of a joke. Renowned airline entrepreneur Freddie Laker famously said of the A300B that it would be “like a horse designed by a committee and would therefore fly like a camel” (a comment he subsequently withdrew when he ordered 10!). When the A300B was rolled out of the hangar and parked alongside its Toulouse neighbour, Concorde, few would have placed money of the podgy twinjet being the aircraft that truly represented Europe’s aerospace future.

In fact the A300B did share one trait with Concorde: both were unique in concept. Unlike the C919 and MC-21, Airbus’s first airliner was truly innovative. For the A300B was the world’s first “big twin” and, once it proved its capabilities, made the short-range variants of ­the Lockheed TriStar and McDonnell Douglas DC-10 trijets obsolete. It also went on to inspire a considered response from Boeing, with the 767.

But innovation in design and concept were not enough to make the A300B a success. It was clever commercial thinking that got Airbus onto the first rung of the ladder.

When Europe’s politicians weren’t interfering, Airbus was trying to overcome strong resistance from across the pond where the US industry was feeling threatened. But for global success, a US customer was vital. Enter Frank Borman and Eastern ­Airlines, with whom ­Airbus did a “sporty” lease deal for some A300 whitetails. An order for 23 aircraft followed and the rest, as they say, is history.

The new boys – Bombardier included – would do well to learn from that experience and remember that successful innovation isn’t just about the tin.

Source: Airline Business