China debuts first domestically-produced passenger aircraft


The first C919 passenger jet. Shanghai, 1 November. [Reuters/Stringer]

China’s first big passenger plane rolled off the assembly line on Monday (2 November) as the Asian giant seeks to develop its own aviation sector and challenge foreign industry giants for prestige and market share.

The C919, a narrow-body jet which can seat 168 passengers, has been under production at a facility in commercial hub Shanghai for over a year, as workers assembled components under the guidance of Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (COMAC).

For China, the plane represents years of efforts in a state-mandated drive to reduce dependence on European consortium Airbus and Boeing of the United States, and even compete against them.

“The roll out of the first C919 aircraft marks a significant milestone in the development of China’s first indigenous aircraft,” COMAC chairman Jin Zhuanglong told an audience of government and industry officials.

A small truck towed the 39-metre long plane ? Bottom of Form painted white with a green tail ? Bottom of Form out of a cavernous building decorated with an enormous Chinese flag into the sunlight as project workers marched alongside, an AFP journalist saw.

But the aircraft, which has a range of up to 5,555 kilometres (3,444 miles), will not make its first test flight this year as originally scheduled, Jin said, with the maiden voyage planned for 2016.

The China Daily has reported it could even be put back to 2017.

500 orders

China has dreamed of building its own civil aircraft since the 1970s when Jiang Qing, leader Mao Zedong’s wife and a member of the notorious “Gang of Four”, personally backed an attempt to do so. The result was the Y-10. Only three were ever made.

Although the C919 is made in China, foreign firms are playing key roles by supplying systems as well as the engines, which are made by CFM International, a joint venture between GE of the US and France’s Safran.

Spending on the C919 has not been revealed. Last month, the Export-Import Bank of China said it would provide state-owned COMAC with $7.9 billion (€7.16bn) in financing for its aircraft projects.

The company already has orders for 517 of its C919 planes, according to a COMAC statement, almost all of them from domestic buyers. Among foreign customers, Thailand’s City Airways has ordered 10, according to an announcement last month.

COMAC has already developed a smaller regional jet, the ARJ, in a project which is years behind schedule.

The 78-90 seat ARJ is still undergoing test flights and lacks the crucial certification by the US Federal Aviation Administration, enabling it to fly in US skies.

The Chinese company also plans a wide body plane, the C929, in cooperation with Russia’s United Aircraft Corp., and speculation is mounting China will create a new aero-engine entity to try to produce the powerful jets needed for large civil aircraft.

The single-aisle C919 targets the lucrative segment dominated by Boeing’s 737 and the Airbus A320.

Fierce competition

Airbus ? which has an assembly facility in the northern Chinese port of Tianjin ? is engaged in a fierce struggle with the US’ Boeing for dominance in the crucial Chinese market.

China is expected to add 6,330 new aircraft worth $950 billion (€861.5bn) to its commercial fleet by 2034, Boeing said in August in its annual China Current Market Outlook.

Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping sealed a deal for Chinese firms to buy 300 Boeing planes worth $38 billion (€34.4bn) as he visited the company’s Seattle plant.

Under an agreement announced on Xi’s trip COMAC and Boeing will also set up a “completion centre” in China for work such as painting planes.

Last week, during a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, China agreed to buy 100 A320 aircraft from Airbus in a deal worth $9.7 billion (€8.8bn) and confirmed options for another 30 twin-aisle A330s.

China is the European Union’s largest trading partner and several major EU countries including Germany, Britain and France are wooing the country in the hope of winning business and becoming hubs for the growing overseas trade of China’s yuan currency.

Many EU firms complain Beijing restricts market access to sectors where Chinese firms in Europe are free to operate and tensions remain over market access and alleged Chinese “dumping” of products such as steel.

The business outlook for civil aviation is looking bright thanks mainly to rising Asian demand for aircraft. Over the next 20 years, global air traffic growth is projected to increase at a rate of 5% a year, in line with historical trends.

But airlines are expected to have a harder time, with tougher competition in Europe leading to a consolidation of the sector, according to industry forecasts.

>> Read: Clear skies for aviation industry, turbulence ahead for EU airlines

Gulf airlines in particular have started to compete with European airlines on international flights, denting the competitiveness of EU and US carriers, which have complained about unfair subsidies from Middle Eastern states.

France and Germany complained about the situation, saying “European airlines are losing market share against the Gulf companies, because of their unfair competitive practices, and in particular because of the significant public subsidies and guarantees they enjoy.”

Paris and Berlin called on the European Commission to end such practices by adopting a common strategy on controlling foreign airlines’ operations with traffic rights in the EU.

>> Read: Gulf airlines hit back at European competition complaints

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