China’s new jet C919 takes off to challenge Boeing and bolster Xi Jinping

C919 would be the first competitor for Airbus, Boeing in the most popular sector of airliner market, gives Comac a home advantage in world’s biggest aircraft market

China’s C919 passenger jet prepares to take off from Pudong International Airport in Shanghai on 5 May 2017. Photo: AFP
China’s C919 passenger jet prepares to take off from Pudong International Airport in Shanghai on 5 May 2017. Photo: AFP

Beijing/Shanghai: China’s first modern passenger jet took off on its maiden test flight, giving wings to President Xi Jinping’s ambition of turning China into an advanced economy.

As onlookers cheered and clicked photos, the C919 airliner left the runway at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, the home base of its builder Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China Ltd., or Comac. The single-aisle plane, which is designed to seat as many as 174 people, is slated to enter commercial service with China Eastern Airlines Corp. in 2019.

The test flight, after repeated delays, marks another step in Xi’s ambitious ‘Made in China 2025’ program, which identified aerospace among sectors that could accelerate China’s advancement. The government has said the ability to build and fly a large commercial aircraft is the “flower’’ and “pearl’’ of modern manufacturing.

The C919 would be the first competitor for Airbus SE and Boeing Co. in the most popular sector of the airliner market and gives Comac a home advantage in what is set to become the world’s biggest aircraft market. Boeing estimates China will need 6,810 aircraft worth more than $1 trillion in the two decades through 2035.

“There’s a lot riding on the C919,’’ said Xu Yongling, a military test pilot and a member of the Beijing-based Chinese Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “The expectation for the C919 is not to become the best-selling single-aisle aircraft in the market, but rather become a stepping stone for COMAC to build something better, with indigenous technology.’’

VIP guests

COMAC plans to make six of the planes for tests, and the second one is getting ready at the final assembly workshop in Shanghai, the builder said. Guests who witnessed Friday’s test flight included vice premier Ma Kai and Han Zheng, Communist Party secretary from Shanghai. The plane circled the skies around the Shanghai region after takeoff, and the test flight is slated to last for a couple of hours before the jet lands back in the city.

The five people aboard the aircraft include the captain, co-pilot, a test observer and two engineers.

Getting into the major league with Airbus and Boeing may be a few decades away as customers typically prefer aircraft with proven track record, reliability and safety, analysts said. COMAC is seeking certification for the C919 from European agencies.

The C919 designation was chosen partly to reflect the idea of long life in Chinese numerology.

With a maximum range of 3,450 miles, the plane is powered by two LEAP-1C engines from CFM International Inc., a joint venture between Safran SA and General Electric Co. Other key system suppliers include Honeywell International Inc., Rockwell Collins Inc., Liebherr-International Deutschland GmbH, Thales SA and Panasonic Corp.

The test flight of the plane follows China’s launch last month of its first domestically built aircraft carrier. The milestones, coming within weeks, burnish Xi’s credentials as a modernizer before he presides over the ruling Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress later this year.

Almost a billion people will fly to, from or within China by 2025, the International Air Transport Association estimates. Over the next two decades, about 75% of the jets ferrying those passengers will be single-aisle — a category dominated by Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’s A320 family.

China is looking at that business and saying “Why should I stand that out? I’d like a piece of that, serving my own market,” said Jeff Rollins, vice president at Honeywell, one of the equipment suppliers to the C919. “It’s also pride. China wants to have the same industrial economic capabilities as a lot of other leading nations.”

In an email, Boeing congratulated COMAC for the “successful development” of the C919, while Airbus said it welcomes competition, “which is good for the development of the industry.”

COMAC, which had postponed the test flight at least twice, says it has commitments from 23 customers for about 570 planes, with Shanghai-based China Eastern lined up to take the first delivery. The company estimates the market potential for the plane would be as much as ¥650 billion ($94 billion).

Next aircraft

Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at Teal Group, said China may have to wait till its next aircraft to really 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.”

COMAC has set its sights on building a wide-body aircraft. It is forming a joint venture with Russia’s United Aircraft Corp. to develop a twin-aisle jet that can fly as far as 7,450 miles –- roughly the distance between Beijing and New York –- and can seat 280 people. The planemaker is targeting the first test flight in 2023 and delivery three years later.

“The C919 is a testament to China’s civil aviation research and manufacturing capability,” said Yu Zhanfu, executive director at Roland Berger Management Consultants Shanghai Co. “China’s had a lot of success in making rockets, making spaceships. It shows the country is capable of mega tech-intensive manufacturing projects.” Bloomberg

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