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24 January 2018 Last updated 3 hours ago

China takes first step toward airline big leagues with passenger jet maiden flight

China takes first step toward airline big leagues with passenger jet maiden flight File Photo

Spectators take photos as they watch the COMAC C919, China's first large passenger jet, coming in for a landing on its maiden flight at Shanghai's Pudong airport.

China took a step toward the aviation big leagues Friday with the long-delayed, but successful, maiden flight of its first modern passenger jet.

China hopes its aircraft industry can someday challenge the Western duopoly of Boeing and Airbus, especially for its large and fast-growing domestic market.

But the flight of the single-aisle, twin-engine C-919 is also a symbol of the country’s ambitions to develop an advanced high-tech economy over the next decade.

State media burst with pride and patriotism as the plane’s debut flight from Pudong International Airport in Shanghai was broadcast live, reporting that about 3,000 officials, executives and other onlookers clapped “ecstatically” as the plane landed, carrying a skeleton crew of five pilots and engineers.

But the reaction on social media was a little more muted, with some pointing out that the flight was a reminder of how far China lags behind the West.

The government says the ability to build and fly a modern passenger plane would be the “pearl” and “flower” of modern manufacturing, a centerpiece of the government’s “Made in China 2025” industrial plan that includes ambitions to develop world-class robotics, advanced information technology, medicines and high-tech transport industries.

There is, however, still a long road to a globally competitive aerospace industry.

The plane’s development was beset by production problems and delays — it had initially been slated to fly in 2014 — and it still relies on a wide range of foreign technology. General Electric and the French firm Safran supply the engines through a joint venture.

The plane is designed to hold 155 to 175 seats and fly 2,530 miles.

It is expected to enter commercial service with China Eastern Airlines in 2019, and its maker, state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, says it has 570 orders from 23 customers.

Most of the demand is coming from state-owned Chinese airlines, and the plane will initially target the domestic market, which is set to displace the United States as the world’s biggest by around 2024, the International Air Transport Association predicts.

It says that 1.3 billion passengers will fly to, from and within China every year by 2035. To meet that demand, Boeing predicts that China will need 6,800 new airplanes, valued at $1 trillion, over that period, as its economy and middle class continue to grow.

Most of the flights will be on single-aisle jets like the C-919. Chinese media said the plane will cost about $50 million, significantly less than a Boeing 737 or Airbus 320, its closest equivalents.

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The Commercial Aircraft Corp. is seeking certification from Europe’s aviation safety regulator.

But Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group, told Bloomberg News that China may have to wait until its next aircraft to break the duopoly for jets that can carry more than 100 passengers.

“At the moment, they are in a real replication mode, which is not where you want to be,” he said. “First off, they need to privatize and open their supply chain up to a global network, rather than just people who will transfer yesterday’s technology.”

China’s ambitions to build a passenger jet of its own date back to the time of Mao Zedong.

In the 1970s, China developed the Shanghai Y-10 airliner, but the plane was beset by problems, including its weight, high fuel consumption, limited range and safety concerns. Only two prototypes were built.