Article by Greg Lindsay
Fast Company  |  June 2012

That’s So Fly

Brazil, China, and Russia take to the skies, bidding for large shares of the $2 trillion narrow-body-jet market.

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Twenty-two kilometers east of the booming Chinese city of Kunming, a giant bird sits on a dusty plateau. Its golden wings stretch hundreds of meters out, as if ready to take flight. Soon it will, at least figuratively: This bird-shaped structure is the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed terminal of Kunming Changshui International Airport, which, after its June 28 opening, will serve 27 million passengers a year (roughly on par with Boston’s Logan and New York’s LaGuardia). Changshui’s two runways will be long enough to handle huge A380s and B747s. But mostly, you’ll find the tarmac filled with smaller single-aisle flying workhorses better suited to shuttling to and from other Chinese boomtowns—A320s, Boeing 737s, and, if Beijing has its way, Chinese-built C919s.

Thanks to strong growth in emerging markets, sales of such aircraft should be robust over the next two decades. Airbus and Boeing both project sales of about 20,000 single-aisle commercial jets over that time, worth almost $2 trillion. The two aerospace titans have long enjoyed a near duopoly. But state-backed firms in Brazil, China, and Russia want in on that lucre, and they’re working to offer their homegrown airlines a compelling, locally built alternative to A and B.

Brazil’s Embraer is out in front, having established its cred with its E-Jets, more than 800 of which have been sold since 2004. The slender aircraft, which seats up to 120 passengers, is a fixture in the fleets of airlines including Air Canada, JetBlue, and US Airways. Late last year, Embraer announced plans to build on that success, developing a new generation of E-Jets with bigger engines and more seats that could take off in the next five years.

Contrast Embraer’s relative ubiquity with Sukhoi, which is best known for Cold War fighter jets. The Sukhoi Superjet 100, produced through a joint venture with Italy’s respected Alenia Aermacchi, is Russia’s first new commercial airliner since Soviet days, when it churned out crash-prone Tupolevs and Antonovs. But since the 100-passenger jet entered service last year—Armenia’s Armavia was the first buyer—it has found few takers outside the ex-U.S.S.R. and was only recently approved to fly within the EU. That hasn’t stopped Sukhoi from announcing the even more ambitious 130NG, a stretched 130-seat version that will compete directly with Boeing’s 126-seat 737-700 and the 124-seat Airbus A319.

Russia’s Superjet and China’s Comac C919—which will be a similar size—are both dependent on government backing. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has strong-armed domestic airlines into ordering the Superjet, and most of the Comac C919’s 235 orders come from Chinese state-owned companies. There’s a rich tradition of this kind of thing in the jet business; while Washington and Brussels haven’t officially pushed their airlines to buy local, Boeing and Airbus have benefited from billions in public aid, including subsidies and tax credits.

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Boeing spokesman Doug Alder accepts that “the duopoly is over,” but the true magnitude of the threat will depend on the new jets’ quality, which is still far from uniformly superior. Only Embraer, which isn’t controlled by Brazil’s government, has shown that it can produce world-class aircraft, and traditionally, says aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group, “state-owned companies make terrible airplanes.” In other words, we’ll see if the golden goose that these countries seek can actually take flight.

UPDATE: On May 9, after the magazine edition of this story went to print, a Sukhoi Superjet 100 carrying 50 airline representatives and journalists crashed into the side of an Indonesian mountain volcano after losing contact with ground controllers halfway through a 50-minute test flight across Jakarta. The fatal accident, which interrupted Sukhoi’s six-country tour for potential Superjet buyers, is the most serious in a string of cited incidents since the aircraft went into service.

EMBRAER E-JET, BRAZIL
Length: 118 ft. 11 in. Height: 33 ft. 9 in. Wingspan: 94 ft. 3 in.

// Embraer’s new-generation E-Jet will boast a new engine, likely from the U.S. builder Pratt & Whitney, whose geared turbofan model decouples the turbine from the air-intake fan at the front. That allows both to operate at optimum speeds while cutting fuel burn by up to 15% and emissions by 35%.

// Size does matter: Embraer is aiming for the historical no-man’s-land of a 90- to 120-seat aircraft. Demand for that niche alone is 4,125 planes over the next two decades, it says—a market worth at least $154 billion at list prices.

// Embraer is also considering cockpit updates, including a full fly-by-wire flight-control system, for the revamped E-Jet. This would replace conventional manual controls, relying on computers to run almost everything up front.

Sukhoi Superjet 100, Russia
Length: 97 ft. 10 in. Height: 33 ft. 8 in. Wingspan: 91 ft. 2 in.

// In 2010, Russian leader Vladimir Putin publicly criticized Aeroflot’s CEO for not buying domestic jets. “You want to dominate the domestic market, but you don’t want to buy Russian technology,” Putin said. “That won’t do.” Aeroflot has since ordered 30 Superjets.

//The stretched 130-seat Superjet 130NG model will boast composite wings, reducing operating costs by 10% to 12%.

// The Superjet 100 is a remarkably global project. While Russia’s Sukhoi and Italy’s Alenia control the joint venture, the landing gear is made by France’s Messier Bugatti Dowty, and the wheels and brakes come from America’s Goodrich.

// Passengers will notice the Superjet 100’s signature feature by its absence: noise. Russian airliners are notoriously loud—to the point where some have been banned from European airspace. Superjet makes a selling point of its uncharacteristically quiet Franco-Russian engines.

Comac C919, China
LENGTH: 126 ft. 6 in. Height: 41 ft. Wingspan: 116 ft. 7 in.

// Comac will supply the airframe; foreign partners such as GE Aviation, Honeywell, and Rockwell Collins will provide everything else, from the engines to entertainment systems. “Technology transfer” to their Chinese partners is the price of admission to a jet market estimated to be worth $40 billion through 2030.

// One advantage of state-controlled capitalism is a captive market. The largest customers to date for the C919, which won’t enter service until 2014 at the earliest, are China’s state-owned airlines, including Air China and China Southern, and leasing companies.

// Comac’s likeliest foreign buyer is the budget carrier Ryanair, whose CEO, Michael O’Leary, has spoken publicly about his desire to break the Airbus/Boeing duopoly. He’s pushing Comac to squeeze in more seats—and Ryanair is considering asking Comac to add standing-room “seating.”

About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative  — and the director of strategy for LACoMotion, a new mobility festival coming to the Arts District of Los Angeles in November 2017.

He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

» More about Greg Lindsay

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