By Valerie Insinna
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Boeing Co CEO Dave Calhoun downplayed speculation that China's maiden commercial flight of its domestically produced C919 narrowbody jet could foreshadow the end of the duopoly currently held by the U.S. planemaker and its European rival Airbus SE.
On Sunday, China Eastern Airlines flew a C919 filled with passengers from Shanghai to Beijing - a milestone for manufacturer Commercial Aviation Corp of China (COMAC).
Calhoun said the C919 is a "good airplane," but it will take a "long while" for COMAC to build the production capacity needed to meet Chinese airlines' demand.
“Three providers in a growing global market of this size and scale should not be the most intimidating thought in the world,” Calhoun told reporters this week. “For us to get overly anxious about that, I think it's a silly prospect.”
Boeing should focus on existing competition and position itself to "win that technology race," Calhoun said. He added that China remains "our friend, our customer," but business could proceed with "fits and starts" due to geopolitical tensions.
Chinese airlines began returning the 737 MAX to service earlier this year. Although all Chinese users have restarted 737 flights, deliveries of the jet have been stalled amid friction between the United States and China.
In April, the Chinese aviation regulator published a report on the 737, which was hailed by Calhoun at the time as an "important step" for restarting MAX deliveries after two crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed a total of 346 people.
Calhoun spoke to the press on Tuesday during a media tour at Boeing’s facilities in Charleston, South Carolina, where the company builds the widebody 787 Dreamliner.
During the discussion – held several weeks before Boeing faces off against Airbus in the orders bonanza of Paris Air Show – Calhoun said the U.S. planemaker could fend off threats, including rival offerings and supply-chain snarls.
As Airbus ponders whether to launch a stretched version of its A220 – a move that would challenge Boeing’s bestselling 737 MAX 8 - Calhoun replied: “That does not give me heartburn.”
Calhoun said it was not important that Boeing regain a 50% market share for narrowbody plane orders against Airbus.
Instead, Calhoun said the biggest driver of Boeing’s market share losses over the past four years was its inability to deliver airplanes, first due to the MAX crisis in 2019 which was followed by supply-chain and production issues.
Calhoun also rejected speculation that Boeing could seek to re-acquire Spirit AeroSystems, a company spun off from Boeing in 2005 that produces major aircraft structures including the 737 MAX fuselage and forward fuselage of the 787, as well as key portions of aircraft made by Airbus.
Spirit has been the source of several problems that have stalled Boeing deliveries in recent years, including an ongoing 737 MAX bracket installation flaw that slowed deliveries since it was discovered in April.
“We are disappointed with every next issue that occurs that limits our rates and slows us down,” Calhoun said. However, those problems “are solvable, and I don't think you acquire a company to solve it.”
(Reporting by Valerie Insinna in Charleston, South Carolina; Editing by Ben Klayman and Matthew Lewis)