An Airbus A380 at the Paris Air Show Photo: IC
Chinese airlines might need between 60 and 100 Airbus A380 double-decker jets over the next five or so years as passenger traffic grows, the planemaker's China head said on Tuesday, amid rising questions over future demand for the super jumbo.
Strong demand in China - if translated into orders - would be a major boost for the world's biggest jetliner by seat numbers which has faced sluggish demand as airlines shift focus toward a generation of nimbler, more fuel-efficient long-haul planes like the A350 or rival Boeing Co's 787.
China, the world's fastest-growing aviation market, is a key battleground for Airbus as well as Boeing which recently predicted the country would spend more than $1 trillion on planes over the next 20 years.
"When I look at the market flow, the passenger flow, route by route and the economics, I'm fully confident that the Chinese carriers will need a minimum of 60 A380s over the next five to seven years," Airbus China Head Eric Chen said at an event in Beijing.
Airbus has sold five A380s to China Southern Airlines but has otherwise failed to penetrate the market with the jet despite its robust demand forecasts.
The aircraft manufacturer believes the A380 will come into its own in markets that face booming tourism and congestion like China, but the aircraft has struggled to compete with smaller and more flexible twin-engined models.
In July, Airbus signed an agreement to sell 140 A320 and A350 planes to China in a deal worth almost $23 billion. China represents around 22 percent of Airbus global deliveries.
"What I can say is that if one airline takes the lead to order a large number of A380s, the others will follow. I would expect a domino effect and I'm working on it to produce that domino effect that has not happened yet," Chen said.
He admitted though that it would not necessarily be an easy task to win over Chinese buyers.
"A lack of confidence to operate the A380 - that is something to work on continuously with the airlines in China," he said.
Airbus, Europe's largest aerospace company, on Wednesday inaugurated a completion and delivery center for its A330 in the North China city of Tianjin. The facility is Airbus' first for wide-body aircraft outside Europe and it delivered its first A330 aircraft to Tianjin Airlines Wednesday.
Chinese carriers had 1,484 Airbus aircraft in service as of the end of August, including 1,282 A320s and 202 A330s, according to Airbus. The A330 accounts for 55 percent of the China mainland's operational wide-body fleet, said Airbus.
Boeing, China's leading provider of commercial airplanes, has projected demand for 7,240 planes worth nearly $1.1 trillion over the next 20 years.
Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said China's fleet size is expected to grow at a pace well above the world average, with almost 20 percent of global new airplane demand derived from China-based airlines.
Single-aisle airplanes continue to be the foundation of domestic and regional fleets in China. Boeing predicts a need for 5,420 new single-aisle airplanes through until 2036, or 75 percent of the company's total new deliveries.
The wide-body fleet over the next 20 years will require 1,670 new airplanes, according to Boeing forecasts.
Airlines continue to shift to small and medium wide-body airplanes for long-haul expansion and flexibility. Primary demand for very large wide-body aircraft going forward will be in the freighter market, Boeing said in a press release on September 6.
Chinese carriers added 21 new routes using Boeing 787s over the last two years, Darren Hulst, managing director of marketing for Northeast Asia at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said on Thursday.
The number of Chinese passengers flying Boeing 787s was four times as many as A380 this year, he noted.
Francois Mery, chief operating officer at Airbus China, said that there was talk of placing more higher-value work in China, as the company has set a target of doubling its industrial cooperation activity in the country to $1 billion by 2020.
"It's not only about the figure, it also about the content," he said.
"They [Chinese peers] have the ambition of getting into the business, making their own aircraft, they need to develop all kinds of things. And so without being naive, of course we are working with them."
Airbus' comments came as the Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (COMAC), which is leading China's efforts to become a key player in the global civil aerospace market, on Tuesday announced 130 orders for its C919 jet.
COMAC, though still some way away from delivering the first C919 for commercial use, is pushing toward getting it certified in Europe and the US to open up markets beyond those that accept China's certification standards.