The ARJ-21 and China's Long, Slow Climb to the Skies

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 |  Includes: BA, ERJ, GE
by: David Wolf

Covering this year's Zhuhai Air Show, The Economist takes a look at China's first domestically-produced jetliner, the AVIC1 Commercial Aircraft Corporation's ARJ-21, and on the eve of the regional jet's maiden test flight takes a moment to consider its commercial prospects. Their verdict: don't count China out.

Many foreign analysts doubt that Western airlines will ever be prepared to buy Chinese aircraft. But, as in other fields, China is playing a long game.

Much of the debate about the ARJ-21 thus far has centered around two issues: first, whether the ARJ-21 will attract buyers beyond the Chinese airlines who are compelled to purchase it (and GE (NYSE:GE), who is making a pile selling engines for the jet); and second, whether China will ever develop a globally competitive civil aviation industry.

Both questions miss the point. What is most important about the ARJ-21 is the lessons it teaches us about the process China goes through to catch up with the rest of the world in technical, complex, high-value industries.

Watch Process, not Product

If you look at all of the technical sectors in which China has built commercially viable businesses, you can discern a clear process by which the nation's industrial policy kick-starts these efforts. In the case of cars, computers, mobile phones, and now commercial jetliners, the pattern is dependably consistent. Let's call it the Four C Model.

First, comes what I call the "capability" phase. the government typically announces a national project to build its own version of an technical product. It turns to a government research institute or a similar organization, which in turn pulls together the team from across the nation's universities and enterprises. Eventually they manage to produce a one or more prototypes, but there is no real possibility of commercializing the product.

Upon review of the initial prototypes and the development process, typically a range of issues is identified that prevented the commercialization of the product. As a result, during the next "collaborate" phase, China sets up an enterprise to build the product using foreign designs, components, and know-how. The result is not quite commercially viable, and may only sell to local customers because of tariffs, tax-breaks, or other subsidies that make the local product appealing to local customers.

Next comes the "component" phase, when a local company creates its own design or modifies another, and many of the parts, but key, mission-critical components come from overseas. In this phase the product is adequate and by most measures comparable to foreign products, but with no track record only the most adventurous foreign customers are ready to trust the product.

Finally, all of the technical kinks are worked out, there are several Chinese companies involved in the effort, and with a demonstrable track record behind it, China is ready to go head-to-head with global companies. This is the "competitor" phase, and it usually marked by brisk sales and the beginnings of a true competitive advantage.

Not Quite a Competitor

In the case of the ARJ, China's effort to build its own jetliner has reached the "component" phase, and it has taken 35 years to get this far.

In the early 1970s, China began a project to prove to the world it was capable of making its own jetliner. the result was the now almost-forgotten Shanghai Y-10, which was as close to a clone of the Boeing 707 that the nation could produce in the late 1970s. Two prototypes were produced. They flew in the early 1980s. China made its point. And the jets never saw commercial service: they were essentially flying monuments to China's aspirations. This was the "capability" phase.

Not long after, China got involved in negotiations with McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft for a joint-venture to assemble their MD-80 class jets in Shanghai. The JV went through brutal political turbulence and costly delays, and in the end the venture sold only a fraction of the jets it had hoped. McDonnell-Douglas was sent packing, but China was left with an entire generation of aircraft engineers, a lot of very helpful tooling, and the groundwork to take the next step. Thus ended the "collaborate" phase.

After nearly a decade of thinking, planning, proposals, and counter-proposals, and even another shot at collaborating with other Asian aspirants, China launched the ARJ-21 (Asian Regional Jet - 21st Century) project. This is the "component" phase, and at this point China is serving as re-designer (the jet is basically a shortened MD-80, or DC-9, with a new wing design from Russia), project manager, and system integrator.

Tough Room

China's aviation policy-makers and industrialists knew the ARJ-21 would be playing in the most competitive end of the civil aviation pool. The regional jet field is dominated by Canada's Bombardier (OTCQX:BDRBF), with its CRJ series, and Brazil's EMBRAER (NYSE:ERJ), with its ERJ series, both of whom have complete lines of aircraft, global technical support, and who built their business on solid reputations for making dependable aircraft.

Three very old names in the aviation industry, British Aerospace, Dornier, and Fairchild, have already been driven out of the aircraft manufacturing business after losing out to Bombardier and EMBRAER, and Boeing's 717 was squeezed out of its market niche with a plane strikingly similar to the ARJ-21. Four other very old names in the aviation industry, Antonov, Tupolev, Sukhoi, and Mitsubishi are all getting ready to pounce on the ARJ-21's markets with brand new regional jets of their own.

So there is not much hope for the ARJ-21 beyond China. And prospects inside of China are not that great, either.

Fat Planes Wanted

The idea behind a regional jet is that you have flights under two hours duration connecting cities under 1,800 kilometers or 1,100 miles apart where you cannot economically fill, say, a Boeing 737, or where the field might be a little short for a small jetliner.

In China, however, the problem is that we have a limited number of airports, a limited amount of airspace, and a whole lot of people who want to fly. There will be some market for regional jets, but in the medium to long term China needs larger jets that make the best possible use of the limited resources in Chinese aviation (i.e., concrete and airspace) to move the maximum number of passengers at the lowest possible cost.

Finally, let's not forget that perhaps the most serious competitor to regional jets in China doesn't even fly. China is in the early phases of a madness for high-speed intercity rail transport. The threat posed by trains as fast as Japan's Shinkansen and France's TGV is most serious to the shorter air routes served by the ARJ. As the price of jet fuel goes up (and, despite current trends, it surely will), that threat grows all the more critical.

Back to our Model

There are other issues, such as a total cost of ownership for the ARJ-21s that are going to be higher than carriers are being let to expect. With all factors in consideration, the ARJ-21 faces some roaring headwinds.

But again, what is important is not the plane itself, but where China's jetliner manufacturing industry will be after the ARJ-21. And here is where it starts to get really interesting.

Just as the ARJ-21 goes into full production, Airbus will be completing its A320 assembly plant in Tianjin. Between the two, China will for the first time have two factories cranking out airliners. The benefits to the industry will be enormous. China will have created overnight a workforce of engineers, machinists, and all of the other specialties involved in aircraft assembly.

In short, by 2014, the groundwork will be in place for China to make the next jump, and the ARJ-21 team will have had five years learning what it takes to support an airliner in the field, sometimes even in the most challenging locations.

What is more, right about that time, Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Airbus will be under pressure from their customers around the world to develop successors to their single-aisle jetliners in the 110-170 passenger range. Both have made it so far by updating and extending their 737 and A320 lines. Five years from now, that may not be enough.

At that point, the door will open for China to enter the fray with its own design, and they will have the benefit of being able to work with the world of suppliers and subcontractors - both in China and overseas - that Boeing and Airbus have helped create. And with Boeing and Airbus forced to contend with powerful unions determined to secure for their members a comfortable American or European middle-class lifestyle, China may well offer a nice cost advantage as well.

All things being equal, then, China may well be able to compete in the small airliner market by 2020.

A Lesson, not a Product

Again, though, this makes the ARJ-21 a stepping-stone, not the destination itself. As such, the success or failure of the ARJ-21 project cannot be measured solely on the basis of aircraft sold. Rather, it must be judged on its by-products, on the extent to which it prepares the nation's aerospace industry to take the next, all-important step and become a global competitor.