The Boeing Dilemma: India’s Moment to Rise in Aircraft Manufacturing

TK Arun

Boeing’s troubles present an opportunity for India to foray into making large aircraft. It would help India realise its own unconstrained growth, and give the world a non-Chinese alternative.

India has to enter the business of building commercial passenger aircraft, not just the small craft that it is planning to build in collaboration with Embraer, Brazil’s maker of regional airliners. This is essential for India’s own unconstrained growth, and for the world to have a non-Chinese alternative, when it comes to additional suppliers of large passenger aircraft.

In 2023, Boeing forecast global demand for an additional 42,600 commercial jets over the next 20 years, a large share of the additional demand coming from Asia. Right now, the world depends on the global duopoly of Boeing and Airbus in the manufacture of large passenger aircraft to meet this demand.

The duopoly has been demonstrably inefficient for quite some time. The time between placing an order and receiving deliveries has been lengthening, thanks to the ever-rising demand for aircraft from fast-growing economies like China and India, in addition to the rising appetite for air travel as incomes rise in the rich world itself. Boeing’s quality problems show that it is not easy even for a company like that to expand capacity fast while maintaining quality.

Trouble in the Skies 

Boeing’s problems that began with the inexplicable crash of its mid-sized 737 Max planes, killing 349 people aboard in two separate incidents in 2018 and 2019, and resulting in the prolonged grounding of 737 Max planes, have continued, and now resulted in the decision for three of its senior-most executives to leave, including the chairman and the chief executive officer. There is no known sorcery that would turn the sacrifice of three honcho heads into any rocketing rise in the company’s standards of quality control to the level of zero error demanded by the business of building large planes in which people fly.

Airbus is likely to see greater demand for its products, while Boeing shapes up. That would put additional pressure on that company to utilise its existing capacity at ever-rising rates, potentially leading to quality control problems there as well.

Competition in Aviation Sector

Not surprisingly, China and Russia have ventured into the commercial airliner space. China’s Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) launched its project in 2008 to build a medium-range rival to Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’s A320 models, and test-flew the C919 in 2017. It had its first commercial flight in May 2023. 

Assorted Chinese airlines have placed enough orders to make this a going concern and become a viable model.

Although it had active collaboration with Canada’s Bombardier, the development of the C919 had been dogged by US allegations of intellectual property theft. That would make it difficult for Western airlines to rush to place orders on the Chinese company. In any case, for assorted parts and sub-assemblies, including the engine, the C919 relies on western parts.

Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation is also in the reckoning to produce a commercial airliner. Its rival to the single-aisle, medium-range A20/Boeing 737 has been the MC21.

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin does not get a good press in India, thanks to the dominance of the western discourse in the media. But it deserves to be recognized that he brought order and stability back to Russia, when he became president in 2000, after the chaos, lawlessness, and kleptocratic predation on Russia’s assets that squandered the scientific, technical, and manufacturing resources built up during the Soviet time in one short decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In 2006, Putin ordered the merger of the different aircraft makers that lay scattered across the former Soviet Union, of which Antonov was lost to Ukraine. The resources of Sukhoi, Tupalev, Mikoyan, Ilyushin and Irkut were combined to form the United Aircraft Corporation. UAC launched its medium range aircraft project in 2007, which yielded the MC21, which made its maiden flight in 2017. The sanctions placed on Russian entities, including UAC, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, have delayed the plane’s largescale deployment. The original aircraft had flown on Pratt & Whittney engines, no longer available to Russia, and the indigenous engines to replace these are not yet fully ready.

These sanctions have also scuppered a joint venture between COMAC and UAC to build a wide-bodied rival to Airbus’s A350, the China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation (CRAIC). UAC has been constrained to withdraw from the project and its production plans are up in the air, as of now, rather than the intended planes.

India’s Foray into Aviation

India is the West’s partner in its mission to keep China’s rise peaceful. It has active collaboration with both the West and Russia, in different civilian and defence sectors. Brahmos Corporation, the maker of world-class cruise missiles, is an example of Indo-Russian technological collaboration and development.

It is in the collective interest of all nations, save, perhaps, China, for India to undertake a new aircraft venture, drawing on expertise from its own institutions and aeronautical industries, Russia and willing Western collaborators.

It could be argued that it took both Russia and China more than a decade from when they began the aircraft development project to put a full-fledged prototype up in the sky.  Why should India fare any better?

There are three major reasons why India could shorten the development period at least by half. One is the huge advance in computing power and artificial intelligence since 2007/08, which would allow faster, better and more distributed modelling of parts and of how the parts would work together.

Two, India has more manpower of the kind required to carry out the kind of work required, especially if it is willing to draw on the wide pool of Indian-origin talent working in cutting-edge areas across the world. Three, neither the West nor Russia is keen to let China steal a march over them in the lucrative market for commercial airliners, worth several trillion dollars in the foreseeable future; and creating a joint venture in India where expertise of diverse sorts and national origins can be pooled is one way to ease that discomfort.

What remains is for someone in the government to think big, identify some key people, work the diplomatic channels, and get things flying.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in Moneycontrol as Boeing Crisis: Time for India to step into aircraft manufacturing as demand soars soon on March 28, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more from the author at:

Beyond Contention: Kissinger and the Absence of a Foe

Silent Diplomacy: The Significance of a Bark-Free Biden-Xi Meeting for Bilateral Ties

Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Tanu Paliwal, a research intern at IMPRI.