China rolls out first big passenger plane

The C919, a narrow-body jet which can seat 168 passengers, is China's first big passenger plane.
The C919, a narrow-body jet which can seat 168 passengers, is China's first big passenger plane.PHOTO: XINHUA

SHANGHAI (AFP) - China's first big passenger plane rolled off the assembly line on Monday (Nov 2) 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.

“China’s air transport industry cannot completely rely on imports. A great nation must have its own large commercial aircraft,” the country’s civil aviation chief Li Jiaxiang told an audience of government and industry officials.  

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

"The roll out of the first C919 aircraft marks a significant milestone in the development of China's first indigenous aircraft," said COMAC chairman Jin Zhuanglong.

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

The China Daily newspaper 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. But the Y-10's heavy weight made it impractical and 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 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.

But it will take years for the C919 to be delivered to customers, with the plane expected to enter service in 2019 at the earliest, industry officials said.

“There’s a lot of work to do still,” said Briand Greer, president for Asia-Pacific of Honeywell Aerospace, which is supplying four key systems for the C919: flight control, wheels and brakes, auxiliary power units and navigation.  

“A lot of testing, a lot of flight testing, systems integration testing and of course all the certification,” he told AFP.

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 that 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.

China is expected to add 6,330 new aircraft worth US$950 billion (S$ 1.3 trillion) to its commercial fleet by 2034, Boeing estimates.

Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping sealed a deal for Chinese firms to buy 300 Boeing planes worth US$38 billion 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 US$9.7 billion and confirmed options for another 30 twin-aisle A330s.