Boeing 737 MAX Test Flights To China Likely: Aviation Safety or Geopolitics?

Nathan Coats from Seattle, WA, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

LONDON – U.S media broke the story at the start of the weekend that Chinese aviation officials “have signaled they are open to conducting flight tests on Boeing’s 737 MAX”, which would reflect a huge step towards getting the aircraft back in the air (Johnsson & Levin, 2021).

With the heightened trade tensions taking effect between the U.S and China, is this a question of aviation safety or geopolitics?

“China is the last major regulator to persist with the ban on the 737 MAX”, with it estimated to be months before the aircraft will actually be able to reach the skies of the country (Bailey, 2021).

Anna Zvereva from Tallinn, Estonia, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, Boeing’s interests ensure that the aircraft is fit to fly in China due to the significant orders still outstanding for Chinese customers. Around 76 Chinese-owned MAXs are grounded, with over 200 still to be delivered to customers such as China Southern, Ruili Airlines, Donghai, and Okay Airways, etc (ibid).

2022 Production Rates Unlikely


Boeing’s CEO Dave Calhoun believes that if the grounding in China continues, the manufacturer will not be able to hit its production rate target of 31 by 2022 (Freed et al, 2021).

“I do know that if it goes on for too long, I pay a price. I pay a price because they’re (China) the biggest part of the growth of the industry in the world.”

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun at a Bernstein Conference.

Such discussions will have to take place very quickly, as explained by Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Relations:

N509FZ, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“The 100th anniversary of the founding of the party, the 20th Party Congress next year, the (2022 Winter) Olympics – all of that push China to be less cooperative”.

Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Relations – Freed, J. et al (2021), Boeing faces rocky path to gaining approval for 737 MAX return in China, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/boeing-faces-rocky-path-gaining-approval-737-max-return-china-2021-06-23/ [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]

Geopolitical Tension


The what seems to be the forever-fought battle over trade with China will no doubt take a new level, as the “state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) is aiming for local certification of the C919 by year’s end, and is ultimately seeking Western certification” (Reuters, 2021).

The C919 has already “announced close to 1,000 orders and options for the plane”, and Beijing has helped COMAC out significantly with this, amounting to around “$72bn in state-related support” (Pfeifer & Riordan, 2021).

The situation of COMAC wanting Western certification is of course something that can’t be easily negotiated in the wake of these tensions, especially with military conflicts that are close to rising with Taiwan and the South China Sea.

N509FZ, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“A Japanese defense official warned the United States of a potential Chinese attack on Hawaii based on evidence of joint Russian and Chinese military exercises in the region” (Hsu, 2021).

If exercises like this are heating up militarily, this of course will not help diplomatic ties between the two sides and will hinder businesses economically on both sides of the Pacific.

On the economic front, the US Government insists that talks are taking place to ensure “American companies can do business there and export there”, as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo explained in an interview with Bloomberg (Martin & Leonard, 2021).

A Matter of Serious Importance Resulting in Solving Disputes in Europe


Chinese trade tensions became that much of a sticking point for the U.S & Europe when after a dispute that has lasted over 17 years over aircraft subsidies was parked due to the “growing awareness among policymakers in Brussels and Washington that China’s state-sponsored aerospace manufacturer… is on track to become a legitimate rival in global planemaking” (ibid).

With China aiming “to become a global aviation power by 2050” (Reuters, 2021), Boeing and Airbus will obviously have to work together if they are to place any competitive disadvantage onto the likes of COMAC.

But as mentioned above, it isn’t as simple as certifying COMAC’s jets into the West. This is something that both Brussels and Washington can use to their advantage in terms of asserting some level of aerospace-based dominance in the region.

COMAC’s C919 – Ken Chen, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With leaders also calling for a “thorough probe into the origin of Coronavirus”, this has ultimately “angered Beijing”, meaning that such disputes between the three are far from over.

Even despite this, there is still the danger that Airbus could dominate the Chinese side of the market, as Calhoun states in his concerns to Aviation Week (Rabechault, 2021):

“If we can’t move airplanes into China, which is 25 percent of the global growth in the next 10 years, then we’re going to suffer. I have no intentions of ceding leadership to the Europeans”.

This comes despite United Airlines’ recent order for 200 units of the type, which has been seen as a lifeline regarding the sustainability of the program (ibid).

Is It About Safety?


As mentioned by Reuters (2021), “the CAAC… is known in the industry as the most conservative of the world’s major aviation regulators”, with the country not having “a deadly commercial air crash in more than a decade”.

The CAAC has requested three things from Boeing if it is to place the MAX back into service:

N509FZ, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Certified design changes.
  • Sufficient pilot training.
  • Definitive findings from the crash investigations.

It could purely be suggested that now the MAX has been approved to re-enter service in the U.S, Europe, and beyond, that they are beginning to see needs satisfied based on what they have asked for.

This will of course be an important factor for Boeing, as it prepares to send a team of engineers and test pilots over to China to demonstrate this.

Overall


It is quite difficult to differentiate whether China is delaying the re-entry of the MAX due to geopolitics or whether it is down to their conservative nature as a regulator.

With President Biden looking for a strategic reset on diplomatic ties with China economically and militarily, whatever is agreed next will form the foundation of Boeing’s success in China.

Tomás Del Coro, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If relations sour, then it could indirectly benefit Airbus on selling the A320neo, A350, and A330neo families within the Chinese market going into the future. And that is something that is in the back of Calhoun’s mind.

All eyes will be on the U.S, and with Biden’s first year in office already full of adventures, it is of necessary importance for them to get this right. For Boeing’s sake.

References:

  • Johnsson, J. & Levin, A. (2021), Boeing MAX edges toward new test flights in China, Bloomberg via The Seattle Times, https://www.seattletimes.com/business/boeing-aerospace/boeing-max-edges-toward-new-test-flights-in-china/ [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Bailey, J. (2021), China Reportedly Moving Closer to Recertifying The Boeing 737 MAX, Simple Flying, https://simpleflying.com/china-boeing-737-max-ban/ [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Freed, J. et al (2021), Boeing faces rocky path to gaining approval for 737 MAX return in China, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/boeing-faces-rocky-path-gaining-approval-737-max-return-china-2021-06-23/ [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Reuters (2021), Boeing 737 MAX’s Return to China Remains Up in the Air As Regulatory, Political Hurdles Persist, SCMP, https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3138762/boeing-737-maxs-return-china-remains-air-regulatory-political [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Pfeifer, S. & Riordan, P. (2021), China’s rival to Boeing and Airbus set to join battle for the skies, The Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/09024b14-6829-4e4e-84a9-3310afc5151b [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Hsu, S. (2021), US Firms Cannot Ignore The Growing Risks of a Possible China-US Military Conflict, The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2021/07/us-firms-cannot-ignore-the-growing-risks-of-a-possible-china-us-military-conflict/ [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Martin, E. & Leonard, J. (2021), U.S. Tralking to China on Boeing MAX Approval, Raimondo Says, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-15/u-s-talking-to-china-on-boeing-737-max-approval-raimondo-says [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Rabechault, M. (2021), United offers ray of hope to Boeing amid turbulent times, TechXplore, https://techxplore.com/news/2021-06-ray-boeing-turbulent.html [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]

About the author

James Field

James is a passionate AvGeek based in Manchester, U.K who has been actively spotting for years. James is the Editor-in-Chief for the company.

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