Boeing, Beware: Ukraine's Biggest Plane Is Back in Business -- in China

By Markets Fool.com


ANTONOV'S FLYING BARN -- THE AN-225 MRIYA. IMAGE SOURCE: MIKE FREER VIAWIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

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"Antonov Aviation Concern" is dead. Long live "the Antonov Company."

That was the upshot of our article earlier this year detailing the trials and tribulations of the several subsidiaries of Ukrainian aerospace giant Antonov Aviation -- including the subsidiary that built and still operates the country's gigantic An-225 Mriya flying barn. (Actually, "Mriya" translates as "dream" -- but you've seen the picture. This thing is big.)

All together now: How big is it?

According to published statistics,the Antonov An-225 Mriya measures 276 feet in length with a 290-foot wingspan. It stands 18 feettall, can lift 1.4 million pounds (including its own weight), and within its capacious hold has space for 46,000 cubic feet of cargo. It's strong enough to carry an entire Russian Buran-class space shuttle piggybacked atop it -- which in fact, was the purpose for which the An-225 was designed. Or it can carry a 200-ton natural gas generator or wind turbine (among its common uses), or 33 fully grown African bull elephants internally.

It is, quite simply, the largest and most powerful transport aircraft on the planet -- bigger than Boeing's (NYSE: BA) 747 freighter, or Airbus'(NASDAQOTH: EADSY) gigantic A380 -- and has been so for nearly three decades.

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And now the An-225 is going back into production.

From Ukraine with love

Last month, IHS Jane's relayed the news that Antonov had signed a deal to license the designs and technologies needed to build the An-225 to the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AICC), for production within China. (Note: AICC may not be the same company as the "Aviation Industry Corporation of China" that is better known by the acronym "AVIC." Some sourcessuggest that despite the identical English translations of their names, these are actually two separate businesses.)

In any case, whichever company it is acting through, China has agreed to assist Antonov in completing an incomplete An-225, on which production was halted in 2001. First flight on that one is expected to take place in 2019, at which point the population of operable Mriyas in the world will instantly double. Subsequently, production will shift to a new factory in Sichuan Province in China, which will commence churning out brand-new, modernized versions of the plane by the mid-2020s -- and in volume.

What it means to investors

Preeminent in the pantheon of global planemakers, Boeing's 747-8F transport is currently only the second biggest transport aircraft in the world. Its 138-ton payload capacity, while impressive, is quite simply dwarfed by the 200-ton payload of Antonov's An-225.

An Airbus A380 freighter would probably outclass the Boeing 747-8F in both payload capacity and cargo volume -- but there isn't an A380 freighter variant on the market today. And as for Lockheed's C-5M, its payload is arguably comparable to that of Boeing's 747 -- but the C-5M is a purely military bird, which limits both the size of its market and the size of the profits it can generate for Lockheed.

That leaves the race for the title of "world's biggest civilian freighter" a contest solely between Boeing and Antonov. To date, it's a contest that Antonov has won handily. But it's also a contest Antonov has only won technically. While the An-225 is certainly much bigger than the B747-4F, it's also been unique -- as in, there's only one An-225 flying, "and they ain't building any more of 'em."

That changed last month. In just a few years, Chinese-made An-225s could be circling the globe in ever-increasing numbers, depriving Boeing once and for all of the title of "world's biggest civilian freighter [for all intents and purposes]" -- and depriving Boeing of some of the revenue, and profits, that it might have been able to earn as the maker of the world's most capable freighter jet. Going forward, some of those profits will be going to China, and via licensing fees, to Ukraine as well.

Sorry, Boeing. You're officially No. 2.

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