Peter's Tex Mex
Amid all of the focus the melamine milk crisis, the world seems to be on a hair trigger with regards to Chinese quality. One recent example is the commentary surrounding the crash last Thursday of Cessna's new prototype light sport aircraft, the Cessna 162 SkyCatcher during certification testing southeast of Cessna's HQ in Wichita, Kansas. (h/t to Plastic Pilot.)
Red Flag on the Flight Line
Cessna has designed the SkyCatcher to make aircraft ownership accessible to an entirely new economic bracket. The SkyCatcher's suggested retail price is US$111,500. That sounds like a lot, but to put that into perspective, consider that Cessna's next-least-expensive airplane, the Cessna 172 Skyhawk SP, starts at a suggested retail price that would buy two-and-a-half fully-loaded SkyCatchers. That's a huge difference in the world of recreational aircraft.
To make such a price even possible, the company is also planning the revolutionary step of manufacturing the planes in China. This is naturally drawing some skeptical attention from the aviation community. There is an old saying, after all, that there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are very few old, bold pilots, and the aviation community tends to be somewhat conservative.
News of the crash sent the chatterati into a tizzy, with speculation leaning heavily toward the China connection as the problem. Never mind that the prototype was built right in the good old USA, that the test pilot was performing maneuvers to test the controllability of the aircraft at the time, and the probability that either pilot error, weather, or a previously unidentified design flaw could have been the cause. No, the automatic assumption is that the problem was Cessna's decision to build the aircraft in China.
So blaming anyone or anything in China for the crash apparently has no basis in fact. But the matter brings up a couple of potential issues.
Where Does Your Airline Get Its Fix?
(Photo: G. Schlager, Lufthansa Technik AG)
As concerned as the world's authorities are now about the tainted milk issue, there is heightened sensitivity around Chinese quality across all industries. With the exception of toys and food, thee is no industry more sensitive to defects than aviation. I don't know about you, but simply putting the phrases "quality fade" and "aviation safety" in the same sentence is enough to get me reaching for the airsickness bag.
Over the last decade, A growing number of international airlines have elected to perform routine-but-labor-intensive maintenance, repairs, and overhauls (MRO, in the trade) in centers in China certified by the FAA and other international aviation regulators. Most of these are joint ventures with MRO companies or aviation engineering firms from overseas, including Swire's HAECO from Hong Kong and Lufthansa Technik from Germany.
If quality concerns around China continue - and there is no reason to think they won't - it will only be a matter of time before this becomes an issue for the airlines. United Airlines' machinists already tried to make it one, but given that it was related to a pending closure of United's San Francisco maintenance base, it got ignored. Let it come from a crusading reporter from a big name media outlet, however, and many international airlines are going to find themselves with a China quality challenge of their own.
The other matter is China's renascent aircraft manufacturing business. Depending on whose estimate you believe, China has invested somewhere between US$ 800 million and US$ 1.5 billion on developing the ARJ21 commuter jet, and has managed to sell only 5 outside of China to aircraft leasing firm GECAS, a unit of GE. (Note that another GE unit supplies the engines for the ARJ21 and has what I figure is around US$1.1 billion in orders for the engines, which gives GE an incentive to roll the log a bit.)
The folks over at AVIC I Commercial Aircraft Company (ACAC), who are trying to sell Chinese planes to the world against more established Canadian, Brazilian, Russian, and Japanese, competition, now have to make their pitch to people who are going to ask a very hard question: "if Chinese manufacturers cannot even guarantee the quality of their milk, how can we in good conscience buy Chinese airliners?"
Whether or not you think the question is even fair, it will be asked, if it hasn't already. And if I were an ACAC executive - or an aerospace policymaker - I'd be a mite tweaked. But it underscores that the fondest hopes of China's leaders for a robust domestic aviation industry can ride on something as simple as the contents of a package of baby formula.
Why Change Happens
Many commentators whom I hold in high esteem, like David Dayton at Silk Road, are pessimistic that this crisis will incite change. I think it can, provided enough people in the other industries in China whose reputations have been tainted by association get tired of losing opportunities because of somebody else's screwups.
China will get on the active quality bandwagon when it hurts too much to do otherwise, which means when enough politically powerful local industries like aerospace begin feeling the pinch of clients wary of "Chinese quality."
And with each new quality crisis, that day gets closer.