Twenty-two kilometers east of the booming Chinese city of Kunming, a giant bird sits on a dusty plateau. Its golden wings stretch hundreds of meters out, as if ready to take flight. Soon it will, at least figuratively: This bird-shaped structure is the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed terminal of Kunming Changshui International Airport, which, after its June 28 opening, will serve 27 million passengers a year (roughly on par with Boston's Logan and New York's LaGuardia). Changshui's two runways will be long enough to handle huge A380s and B747s. But mostly, you'll find the tarmac filled with smaller single-aisle flying workhorses better suited to shuttling to and from other Chinese boomtowns—A320s, Boeing 737s, and, if Beijing has its way, Chinese-built C919s.
Thanks to strong growth in emerging markets, sales of such aircraft should be robust over the next two decades. Airbus and Boeing both project sales of about 20,000 single-aisle commercial jets over that time, worth almost $2 trillion. The two aerospace titans have long enjoyed a near duopoly. But state-backed firms in Brazil, China, and Russia want in on that lucre, and they're working to offer their homegrown airlines a compelling, locally built alternative to A and B.
Brazil's Embraer is out in front, having established its cred with its E-Jets, more than 800 of which have been sold since 2004. The slender aircraft, which seats up to 120 passengers, is a fixture in the fleets of airlines including Air Canada, JetBlue, and US Airways. Late last year, Embraer announced plans to build on that success, developing a new generation of E-Jets with bigger engines and more seats that could take off in the next five years.
Contrast Embraer's relative ubiquity with Sukhoi, which is best known for Cold War fighter jets. The Sukhoi Superjet 100, produced through a joint venture with Italy's respected Alenia Aermacchi, is Russia's first new commercial airliner since Soviet days, when it churned out crash-prone Tupolevs and Antonovs. But since the 100-passenger jet entered service last year—Armenia's Armavia was the first buyer—it has found few takers outside the ex-U.S.S.R. and was only recently approved to fly within the EU. That hasn't stopped Sukhoi from announcing the even more ambitious 130NG, a stretched 130-seat version that will compete directly with Boeing's 126-seat 737-700 and the 124-seat Airbus A319.
Russia's Superjet and China's Comac C919—which will be a similar size—are both dependent on government backing. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has strong-armed domestic airlines into ordering the Superjet, and most of the Comac C919's 235 orders come from Chinese state-owned companies. There's a rich tradition of this kind of thing in the jet business; while Washington and Brussels haven't officially pushed their airlines to buy local, Boeing and Airbus have benefited from billions in public aid, including subsidies and tax credits.
Boeing spokesman Doug Alder accepts that "the duopoly is over," but the true magnitude of the threat will depend on the new jets' quality, which is still far from uniformly superior. Only Embraer, which isn't controlled by Brazil's government, has shown that it can produce world-class aircraft, and traditionally, says aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group, "state-owned companies make terrible airplanes." In other words, we'll see if the golden goose that these countries seek can actually take flight.
UPDATE: On May 9, after the magazine edition of this story went to print, a Sukhoi Superjet 100 carrying 50 airline representatives and journalists crashed into the side of an Indonesian mountain volcano after losing contact with ground controllers halfway through a 50-minute test flight across Jakarta. The fatal accident, which interrupted Sukhoi’s six-country tour for potential Superjet buyers, is the most serious in a string of cited incidents since the aircraft went into service.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.