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Spearheading this push is the Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) C919, a 168-190 seat narrow-body airline design which will be China’s biggest commercial plane when it takes off for testing in 2014.
Design and assembly of the aircraft will be done in Shanghai and although the first deliveries will not be made until 2016, China has bold plans that could help break the long-standing duopoly of Boeing and Airbus.
Some 235 orders have already been received for the plane from 11 different companies and the end goal of the government’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is to flog 2,000 jets in 20 years, according to Chinese tech site MIC Gadget.
There is certainly enough in the coffers of Chinese industry to drive these ambitious growth plans. Singapore-based Bank of China subsidiary BOC Aviation signed a deal for 20 C919s at the Singapore Airshow last month, for example.
An admittedly nationalistic Beijing Business Today article trumpeted the strides being made by China’s nascent aircraft manufacturing industry.
National Civil Aviation Secretary Eric Li is quoted as saying the end goal is “to implement a national strategy, as soon as possible, to create a standard of qualified, market-recognised domestic aircraft,” and for the CAA to “encourage domestic airlines to give priority to the purchase and use of domestic civil aircraft".
With those kinds of backers there is more than a little reason for Boeing and Airbus to take a healthy interest in what’s going on in Shanghai, although the air giants have their own plans afoot to refresh their designs in the category the C919 will be competing in.
The Boeing 737 MAX could be ready by 2017 while the Airbus A320neo is scheduled for delivery two years before that.
With combined orders for the well-established duo already close to 2,000, there’s no doubt enough interest from the international airline community to keep Boeing and Airbus happy for now.
It is in fact internationally where China’s plans may start to unravel, despite Li’s stated aim to “actively strengthen communication and cooperation with the United States, Europe and other countries, and promote China-made large aircraft”.
To the fore, as always, are safety concerns.
Aviation Week reported late last year that Comac’s ARJ21 regional jet had hit delays in its bid to attain the FAA safety certificate vital to international sales prospects, something which may have a knock-on effect with its younger brother the C919.
Rightly or wrongly, the fatal high-speed train crash in China last July will also be front of mind in any discussion about the country's bold ambitions in the air.
Many commentators have claimed that the government tried to cover up safety failings with the trains which led ultimately to the death of 40 passengers. ®