By Ben Marlow
Bob Sauer got the shock of a lifetime when he ventured outside earlier this month, torch in hand. There, poking out of one of the cedar trees he’d planted 20 years ago in his back garden in suburban Portland, Oregon, was something “gleaming and white”, he told NBC News.
Sauer, a 64-year-old physics teacher at a local private school, had stumbled upon the most crucial piece of evidence in what had already become a major investigation: the missing cabin door blown out of a Boeing 737 Max 9 plane just minutes after take-off earlier that weekend.
Though miraculously there were no fatalities, the incident threatens to spiral into another costly crisis for Boeing as fresh questions are asked about the safety and reliability of the 737 Max jet.
The model has only recently come back into service after being grounded for 20 months following its involvement in two deadly crashes in 2019 that killed nearly 400 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
The disasters left Boeing battling the biggest crisis since it was founded more than a century ago as it sought to restore its reputation and weather the financial storm – the 737 accounted for roughly a third of the company’s $US100 billion ($150 billion) annual turnover at the time.
Chief executive Dave Calhoun is now desperately trying to calm a storm that wiped nearly $US14 billion off the aerospace titan’s stock market valuation in a single day. Yet even if he can steady the ship in the short-term, there is another threat on the horizon: Boeing’s latest mishap may have presented China’s communist party with an unexpected opportunity to win over the skies.
For more than a decade, state-owned aircraft manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) has been working on a jet programme that it hopes will enable it to compete with Boeing and Airbus on the international stage. Could Boeing’s latest troubles enable Beijing’s stuttering plan to finally get airborne?
The C919, a narrow-body, twin-engine aircraft that is intended to be a challenger to models such as the 737 Max and the Airbus A320, made its maiden flight in June last year to much fanfare – at home at least. China’s State Council called it “a huge breakthrough…a major milestone of China’s aviation market”.
President Xi Jinping declared that the plane “carries the will of the state, the dream of the nation and the hope of the people”, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. He has also said China won’t be considered a “true power” until it has developed its own airliner.
But despite the regime ploughing tens of billions of dollars into the project, and extensive collaboration with Western aerospace companies, orders of the C919 plane have not yet met Beijing’s expectations.
Outside of China, the C919 was initially greeted with extreme scepticism bordering on ridicule at times.
Experts pointed to the massive challenges in building a commercial plane from scratch. They scoffed at the idea that Comac would ever get approval for the C919 from regulators in Europe or the US, meaning it would struggle to be anything more than a local supplier, or a fringe player at best.
In the unlikely event that it is given the green light, the idea that airlines outside of the country would consider buying planes assembled in China, never mind succeed in persuading their customers to board one, seemed even more far-fetched.
China was accused of lacking the technical nous. Some questioned whether the technology deployed in the C919 was in danger of being obsolete before the plane was even airborne because of the long delays in bringing it to market. The vast sums of money needed to get it off the ground were seen as an insurmountable hurdle too.
“The C919 can never be a successful commercial initiative,” Scott Kennedy at The Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says. The Washington-based think tank spent several years scrutinising the programme, and concluded that Comac was “an aerospace minor-leaguer”.
“Comac… is not in the same league as the world’s top commercial aircraft manufacturers,” it said.
Could Boeing’s latest mishap improve the C919’s fortunes and clear Beijing’s plans for take-off? Opinion was already shifting in some quarters before Alaska Airline flight 1282 from Portland International, Oregon, was forced into an emergency landing.
Until recently, Shukor Yusof of Endau Analytics, a Singapore-based aviation consultancy, was one of the doubters. He thought few airlines outside of mainland China would be able to get over the stigma of buying a commercial jet that was assembled in the country.
Comac’s failure to sufficiently distinguish its planes, and the length of time it is likely to take for overseas regulators to certify them, would put off buyers, he believed.
But Yusof has been quickly won over as the C919 has zipped off the production line and Comac’s order book has steadily climbed, including outside of China.
“I still think the ‘Made in China’ label comes with a bit of stigma but it’s becoming less so – a lot of the smaller airlines throughout the world, especially in Southeast Asia, have indicated they are more than willing to try out this aircraft,” he says.
Orders like the one China Eastern lodged for 100 C919s at a cost of $US10 billion are taken for granted because of pressure from Beijing to support the national cause. But in December Comac received its first overseas purchase. Brunei’s GallopAir has agreed a $US2 billion deal to buy 30 planes, including 15 of the C919. There is interest from Indonesia and Tibet Air too.
Yusof expects other countries in Asia, Africa and possibly eastern Europe to follow suit, as the business rationale becomes harder to ignore.
For one thing, the C919 is readily available. “You could get one tomorrow,” he says. By contrast, the waiting time for a Boeing or Airbus plane is years.
The C919 is also much cheaper.
“They’re [Comac] willing to bend over backwards and offload the aircraft at a significant discount,” Yusof says. “We’re talking about a 15 per cent to 20 per cent saving. They’re not in it to make money. This is a national project.”
Competing with the 737 is a gargantuan undertaking. The best-selling commercial airliner ever, it is operated by more than 5000 airlines in almost 200 countries. At any given moment, there could be more than 1000 in the sky.
Ultimately, the success of the C919 may be determined by Boeing’s capacity for self-harm more than anything else. Growing dismay at the US giant’s increasingly chequered track record may persuade some airlines to take a punt on the C919.
Patience with the $US235 billion American aviation behemoth was already wearing thin after the prolonged grounding of the 737 Max led to a huge order backlog just as the airline industry was poised to rebound from the pandemic.
Yusof says people who have long respected and admired Boeing are losing faith. Among them is Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary who has previously told Boeing to “get its shit together”.
Last week, he expressed concern about ongoing delivery delays and the impact that could have on Ryanair’s bottom line over the busy summer months.
Ultimately, the success of the C919 may be determined by Boeing’s capacity for self-harm more than anything else.
Ronald Epstein, an analyst at Bank of America, warns of delays to Max 9 deliveries, the newer Max 7s and Max 10s, as investigators scrutinise Boeing’s sprawling fleet again.
Others think Beijing’s desire to compete with Boeing and Airbus has been overstated.
“Civil aviation is a huge growth driver for China and they are totally reliant on the West for this,” one senior industry executive says.
“It’s about satiating Chinese domestic demand, not creating a market wildly focused on export. It’s about having independence.”
Regardless of the true motive, Boeing’s woes may just play into Comac’s hands as the C919 takes to the skies.
Source: Thanks smh.com