What should be the new Russian-Chinese wide-body aircraft
In the near future, a joint working group of specialists from Russia and China will submit to the governments of both countries a feasibility study on the project to create a new wide-body passenger aircraft. In China, he has already received the working designation C929. Its development on a parity basis will be engaged in the United Aircraft Building Corporation (UAC) and the company COMAC. According to the preliminary distribution plan, the composite wing and mechanization will be done by the Russian side, and the fuselage - by the Chinese. Engines and avionics for the new aircraft will initially be created by Western companies that have yet to be determined at tenders.
The new aircraft is expected to appear on the world market in 2025 and destroy the long-standing duopoly of the current leaders, Airbus and Boeing, who dominate the segment of wide-body trunk airliners. Moreover, this program has all chances to become one of the most large-scale projects of the Russian-Chinese partnership in the field of high technologies. But in order to guarantee the success of a new liner, it is necessary to accurately determine its market niche and carefully calculate its technical characteristics, first of all its capacity and range. However, it is precisely in these matters that the positions of Russian and Chinese aircraft manufacturers do not yet coincide. Now working groups are analyzing several design options at once. It should be completed with the passage of the so-called control line, when the parties choose one target option. And at the next stage, UAC and COMAC will present the basic concept of the liner, after which they will begin active consultations with the airlines. It is this collaboration that will allow to specify the key requirements for the new aircraft, including its range and capacity. So what kind of a liner will be in demand in China and in Russia? And what could be the compromise version of the aircraft so that it could press the American and European competitors on the market?
All in growth
According to Boeing’s predictions, from 2015 to 2034 a year around the world 8830 new wide-body aircraft will be sold for a total of 2,7 trillion dollars. This means that the fleet of such aircraft will grow almost 2,4 times. In this case, according to Boeing, the most popular will be small aircraft designed for 200 – 300 passengers. They will sell 4770 pieces to 1,25 trillion dollars.
Note that the current state of affairs is fundamentally different from what the Americans predict. Airbus and Boeing now have firm orders for almost all 2600 wide-body airliners. At the same time, half of them fall on liners with a capacity of 300 – 400 seats. The undisputed leaders in the number of firm orders in this segment, as well as in the entire widebody airliner market, are the Airbus A350-900 and Boeing 787-9 models (ordered by 590 and 451, respectively). In the larger-capacity segment, the Boeing 777-300ER model, which has been in use for 11 years and accommodating 365 passengers, is in high demand. There are 200 solid orders for this aircraft. To replace this liner, Boeing is currently developing the 777-8X and 777-9X models - with 350 and 406 passengers, respectively. The latter model is already moving into the segment of large aircraft, although it will be located at its lower boundary. Now there is already an 253 order. The company says that the market for 400-local aircraft is not large enough, and they began to develop the 777-9X model only to be able to compete with the Airbus A350 in terms of passenger-kilometer cost, and not because of the need of airlines in courts of such a large capacity.
Forecast of demand for new wide-bodied aircraft over the next 20 years
It should be noted one interesting fact. The most popular model in the production line of the American corporation - Boeing 787-9. This liner is able to accommodate 290 passengers. Following the classification of Boeing, it falls into the segment of small wide-bodied aircraft on 200 – 300 seats and seems to be partly confirms the correctness of the corporation’s forecast of the future demand for these aircraft. But in fact, this model is located on the upper border of this segment and is more likely to a segment of medium wide-bodied airliners. A more spacious model of the same family - the Boeing 787-10, capable of carrying 330 passengers - is also popular with airlines, although much smaller. There are only 139 solid orders for it. This means only one thing: within the Boeing 787 and Boeing 777 families, similar in dimension models “eat away” from each other customers, some of which still strive to get more capacious models. At the same time, customers of American wide-bodied aircraft both in the first and in the second case are clearly aimed at the segment of medium airliners.
The situation is similar with Airbus, with the only difference being that European models are much more clearly positioned and do not claim to be the top niche of the middle segment. The new and most spacious model in the lineup of the European company - Airbus A350-1000 - is designed for 366 passengers. A new model of the Airbus A350-900, the production of which has just begun, accommodates 325 people. As for the lower boundary of the middle segment, here the Europeans rely on the upgraded model Airbus A330-900NEO, designed for 310 passengers. Its capacity will increase on 15 seats compared to the outdated Airbus A330-300.
Thus, contrary to Boeing’s forecasts, the lion’s share of supply and demand in the wide-body aircraft market will be concentrated in the segment of medium airliners for at least the next five to six years, the lower limit of which is conditionally defined in 290 seats and the upper one in 406. This is clearly indicated by the structure of the current order book of American and European aircraft manufacturers. As for the change in supply in this market and the emergence of other new aircraft, on the horizon of the next eight to nine years they are not foreseen by either Boeing or Airbus. And in the longer term, all changes will depend on how China’s airlines behave and what actions the government of this country will take.
It all depends on China
Twenty years later, according to IATA, China will double the number of flights, overtake the USA and become the largest market for passenger air travel. By this time, every fifth passenger in the world will fly either to China, or from China, or inside China. Now only every tenth traveler makes such flights. In total, 70 thousand of so-called Chinese flights are currently performed weekly, and there will be almost 150 thousand flights. This circumstance will not only affect the supply and demand structure in the global aircraft market, it may become a determining factor in the formulation of strategies and market policies of all aircraft manufacturing companies in the world. The same Boeing predicts that the number of jet aircraft of all types operated in China will increase by more than 2,7 times over twenty years, from 2400 to about 6930 units. For this, China’s airlines will acquire a little over 6000 aircraft. Almost 1500 of them are wide-bodied aircraft. Thus, China will provide a third of all global demand for these aircraft. If we consider the entire region of the APR, then it will have more than half of the demand.
Two years ago, the PRC government lifted the ban on the creation of new airlines not affiliated with government agencies. And the other day, the authorities of this country announced their decision to invest in the development of civil aviation China 1,5 trillion yuan (232 billion dollars). These funds will be spent on infrastructure development, construction of 45 new airports and so on. The investments are designed to eliminate existing restrictions and dramatically increase the throughput of airports in the country's secondary cities, as well as support the high growth rate of passenger traffic, which now makes up about 8,4–8,8% per year in China.
Prices, orders and the main characteristics of the proposed new twin-engine wide-body aircraft for sale in a three-class layout (range with full load, unless otherwise indicated)
Research companies unanimously say that international transportation in China occupies a small share in the total volume, although they are growing faster than the market. Moreover, the share of Chinese air carriers on main routes (from China to China) is only 40%, and the Chinese government wants to increase it. But the Chinese airlines themselves do not want this. They rightly believe that competition is extremely high on international routes and that they will have to fight with foreign carriers, which does not guarantee success, but will definitely reduce profitability, and may lead to losses. It is much easier for them to earn in the domestic market, which is protected from competition with foreigners by regulatory rules. All this is directly reflected in the demand of Chinese airlines for spacious Airbus and Boeing wide-bodied airliners - it is now practically just not there. First of all, we are talking about super giants, or about large liners in the Boeing classification. This aircraft with four engines - Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8. With a maximum load, they can fly over a distance of 15,2 thousand km and 14,1 thousand km, respectively. But the demand for them is severely limited, in the whole world it is estimated in only a few dozen pieces. Moreover, part of the already placed orders for giants with high probability can be canceled or replaced with other versions. As a result, for example, Boeing dramatically reduces the release of the Boeing 747-8 and is considering the possibility of taking it out of production.
As for China, an extremely small number of passenger Airbus A380 and Boeing 747 are operated in this country. At the same time, China’s airlines are not placing new orders for aircraft of these models at all. This is explained, on the one hand, by their unwillingness to actively develop trunk routes, and on the other, by the high cost of owning large four-engine planes and the inability to operate them effectively on relatively short internal overloaded routes.
Nevertheless, it is obvious that China will need effective high-capacity aircraft, but with two engines, in order to meet growing demand in the domestic market in the medium and long term. Certain plans to create such aircraft in the past ten years have hatched Airbus and Boeing, but the configurations in question have not been fully optimized for the Chinese market. So, in Boeing it was planned to create a roomy liner based on the Boeing 787 platform for domestic flights across Japan. The project was called the Boeing 787-3 and was designed to carry 300 passengers to a distance of 6500 km, but in 2010, it was closed due to the lack of a viable economic model. Airbus has the Airbus A330-300 Regional project, which was launched in 2013 year. But this plane is nothing but a lightweight version of the basic version of the A330-300. Modification Regional is designed to carry passengers to 400 on medium-haul routes - to 5500 km. The developers claim that carriers will be able to save due to the lower curb weight, which for this option is about 200 tons. It is noteworthy that the A330-300 Regional is being modified with an eye to the Chinese market to transport passengers from cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou to the country. Nevertheless, this aircraft was never acquired by any Chinese airline, and its only customer at the moment is Saudi Arabian airline Saudi Arabian, which ordered 20 of such aircraft for domestic flights in the Middle East region.
However, it should be understood: Airbus A330-300 Regional, although suitable for operation on small and medium routes with large passenger traffic, was not specifically created for this. So, far from being fully optimized. The A330 platform itself was designed at the very beginning of 1990's and cannot be considered the optimal solution for China and other countries with a similar structure of domestic transportation. Simply put, almost all the so-called optimization is to reduce the mass of the aircraft and reduce engine power.
Thus, China's airlines in the medium term will objectively need a sufficiently large number of capacious twin-engine wide-body airliners for transportation in the domestic market. And the liberalization of the internal market of the PRC and multi-billion investments in the airport infrastructure will only strengthen it. As a result, a boom in demand for regional transportation will inevitably arise in China.
At first glance, in this situation the most logical solution for COMAC and UAC would be to create a new airliner with a capacity of 400 – 450 passengers. However, in Russia the market for such an aircraft is quite small. In our country, on regular flights, the entire 92 wide-body aircraft is currently operated, in the medium term their number may increase to a maximum of 120. At the same time, almost all of these liners are designed for medium-haul routes with small and large passenger traffic. It is almost the only possible option for using a higher-capacity aircraft in Russia - flights from Moscow and St. Petersburg to Sochi and the Crimea (during Soviet times, our wide-body IL-86, which can accommodate 350 passengers, flew on routes to Sochi). In addition, there is the possibility of operating such aircraft in the high summer season on routes from Moscow and St. Petersburg to Turkey and Egypt.
Airbus and Boeing now have firm orders for almost all 2600 wide-body airliners. At the same time, half of them fall on liners with a capacity of 300 – 400 seats
As for the global market, in the foreseeable future, a roomy aircraft for short and medium routes in addition to Saudi Arabia may be in demand only in India and Indonesia. But the total demand for such liners, even taking into account China and Russia, is unlikely to exceed 250 units.
Based on this, we can confidently predict that the aircraft optimized for the Chinese domestic market risks being even less successful than the Airbus A380, the direct costs of EU countries for which exceeded 15 billion dollars, but have not paid off. And taking into account the indirect costs, the program cost at least $ 23 billion. In total, Airbus received 317 orders for such aircraft and has released 165 so far. The total revenue from their sales, taking into account the huge discounts to start-up customers, sometimes exceeding 50% of the catalog price, can be roughly estimated at 30 billion dollars.
To find a compromise
Obviously, when developing the new COMAC and UAC aircraft, it is advisable to rely not only on serving the domestic Chinese passenger traffic and Russian tourists, but also on meeting the other needs of Russian, Chinese and other airlines from the APR countries. First of all, it means transportation to an average range. In the international classification, this distance is determined in the interval from 5600 to 11 100 km. All direct routes, which fly wide-bodied airliners of western production, which are in operation in Russia, and the overwhelming majority in China, fall here. If we talk about East Asia and America, Russian airlines fly on wide-bodied airliners mainly to China, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, the United States and India. That is, they need to overcome the range of no more than 10 thousand. Km. For example, the distance from Moscow to Beijing is 7200 km, from Moscow to Ho Chi Minh, New York or Tokyo - 7700 km, and from Moscow to Singapore - 8500. True, we must also add an amendment to the strong headwind (up to 20%).
The considered range 10 thousand km covers all flights from China to Europe, and a very significant number of flights to the countries of the Asia-Pacific Region. For example, from Shanghai to Sydney 7900 km, from Beijing to Jakarta - 5300, and from Beijing to Tokyo, and at all 2100 km. Only flights from China to the USA, as well as to South Africa and New Zealand, do not fall into this range.
Thus, the range 10 thousand km could well be taken as a basis as a baseline for the new Russian-Chinese wide-body aircraft. But to increase it, especially significantly, there are no serious reasons. According to statistics, 95% of all flights in the world have a range of less than 13 thousand km. And almost 85% - less than 10 thousand. Km. The paradox is that all new Airbus and Boeing wide-body aircraft offered on the market are designed for a range over 10 thousand km (with the exception of the A330-300 Regional version being developed). This means that they are not optimized for specific networks of routes and, accordingly, are overweight, power, and so on. But why then do Airbus and Boeing still create liners capable of flying 13 – 15 thousand km? Americans and Europeans themselves answer this question in the following way. Firstly, because there are the very 5 – 15% of flights that require such aircraft. Secondly, because airlines often use them on other flights of their route network, and it is cheaper to maintain a uniform fleet. Thirdly, airlines often fill the lower bays of liners with additional cargoes, which automatically reduces the flight range. But in our case it is still not a reason to create a plane with redundant capabilities.
Prices, orders and basic characteristics of passenger four-engine wide-body airliners
Obviously, the UAC and COMAC cooperation program will involve the development of not a single airliner, but a whole family. His senior model will have to satisfy the demands of Chinese airlines by the criterion of range, and the youngest one - Russian ones. And vice versa, if we talk about capacity.
In other words, designers from Russia and China in the first case, most likely, will have to create a model that is somewhat less in range and capacity than the Boeing 777-300ER. And in the second case - significantly more than the Airbus A330-300.
A new level of technology, including in the production of composite wings, which Russia has mastered in preparation for the production of MC-21, will certainly allow it. As a result, the new Russian-Chinese aircraft has every chance of not becoming a copy of Airbus and Boeing, but surpassing American and European competitors. And at the same time be in demand not only in China and Russia, but also in many other countries of the Asia-Pacific region.