Still, just as aircraft orders have been part of geostrategic ties between China and the US—the year of Richard Nixon’s historic visit, China ordered 10 707s, beginning a turn away from Soviet planes—and between China and Europe, China could follow the same blueprint, especially with countries that are part of its global Belt and Road infrastructure program. Xu Pei, then COMAC’s deputy chief of marketing, told state-run newspaper China Daily in 2017, that Comac was focusing on “three major target markets, which are our home market, Africa, and Southeast Asian countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.”

A week after the ET302 crash, Ethiopia’s ambassador to China tweeted photos of himself with demo models of the C919 and C929 at Comac’s Shanghai facility. In April, Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO Tewolde Gebremariam told state-run Xinhua News Agency that it was considering ordering the C919 for its fleet.

“China has been putting all the building blocks together correctly to get where they are today,” said Pritchard. “And today with Embraer being bought out by Boeing and the [Bombardier] C Series going to Airbus, Comac is now a legitimate number-three player in the commercial aircraft industry.”

But there’s still a long road ahead.

Communist party brass and millennials

When Susan Ying, a Boeing veteran, went to Comac as one of the state-run company’s short-term foreign experts, one of the things she noticed about her new colleagues was their relative youth compared with her co-workers at Boeing. They are likely China’s equivalent of millennials, known as the post-90s generation. Many of them would not have seen an entire aircraft product cycle, noted Ying, who spoke about her time at Comac at a panel organized by Washington think-tank CSIS two weeks before the Lion Air crash.

Ying also described Comac’s current chairman He Dongfeng, who took over the role in 2017, as “brilliant” and with “a really hands-on working style.” “If it wasn’t for him, it would have been impossible for me to work over there,” said Ying, now vice president of technology strategy at US electric aircraft startup Ampaire. She didn’t appear optimistic, however, about the ability of the C919 to quickly go into wide use, calling an estimate that it would at best deliver eight planes by 2023 “optimistic.”

Comac’s top management is composed of long-term Communist Party members who’ve come from other government bodies.  Compared with the websites of Boeing and Airbus, the biographies strike an odd note, listing their role in Comac’s party committee alongside their Comac titles, and usually beginning with their ethnicity and the year they joined the party. The set up makes the company hierarchical, and prone to working around annual targets, which makes it hard to respond to ideas from within their youthful ranks (it’s a problem more market-oriented companies can have too). “New ideas that can pop up from the bottom or the middle are not pushed up,” said Madar. “This is an issue that they need to figure out for a modern company in the real world.”

A screenshot from Comac’s website.
A screenshot from Comac’s website.
Image: Comac screenshot

And while they bring a lot of experience in regulation and aircraft design, there appears to be little collective experience on the commercial side. Late last year, Comac hired Tan Wangeng, who was general manager at China Southern Airlines, China’s largest state-run carrier, as its deputy general manager, a move seen as preparing the manufacturer to be better attuned to airline needs.

Comac is also more inward looking than is typical for an aircraft manufacturer—when being global needs to be in the DNA of any major aircraft manufacturer. Both Boeing and Airbus have deep relations with airlines worldwide, including in China.

“Aircraft manufacturing is a global business, it’s not a domestic product. So any company that wants to build aircraft has to be extremely smart in cultures and markets worldwide, they have to be inside the system all over the world,” said Madar, who moved to China as Boeing’s director of flight operations there in 1997, working closely with airlines and government agencies for the next 13 years. “Boeing, we went to China 25 years ago and started getting inside the system and learning things… This is what Comac needs to do.”

Without that overseas presence and ability to interface well with carriers and agencies, Comac’s international certification efforts could become stuck.

But then, there’s enormous opportunity within China alone, where Comac can surely count on certification. Chinese domestic air passengers reached 550 million in 2018, according to CAAC, gaining on the 780 million who flew domestically in the US the same year. Airbus has forecast that within two decades, China could have close to 1.8 billion domestic passengers, and will need about 7,400 new aircraft, or about 20% of global demand, while Boeing believes it will need about 7,700.

Pritchard says he expects that in about 15 years, China could be supplying 20% of the market, largely to its own airlines, while Airbus and Boeing split the rest. If Comac’s planes reach a critical mass of use in the China without incident, and go on to gain safety certification in the US and Europe, carriers outside China could become more willing to consider this third option.

“This is a way that Comac can do something important and that is over the years it can show the planes are safe,” said Fallows, who is also a contributor to the Atlantic (Atlantic Media was formerly Quartz’s parent). “There’s no way you can get a record of a decade’s worth of safe operations faster than a decade.”

Rather than creating an immediate opening for Comac, Boeing’s current troubles could make carriers more safety-conscious and cautious, and flyers too. When an aviation major with a century of history is having a crisis of this magnitude, it highlights just how hard it is to get things right—and to keep getting them right—in this industry. What China’s trying to do with aircraft, in the time frame it’s trying to do it in, is harder than most of its other tech ambitions—which include putting people on the moon again.

“Building a successful worldwide commercial airliner is much, much harder than going to the moon because of the ongoing widespread complexity of all sorts—of repair stations, and quadruple redundancy,” Fallows told Quartz. “In a moonshot you can put all your effort on doing all these very difficult things one time. With an aerospace network it has to be done thousands of times per day all around the world and anything that goes wrong can be catastrophic, as we have seen.”

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