Nation aims for the sky as jet rolls off runway
Bill Savadove in Shanghai
State-backed China Aviation Industry Corp I (Avic I) yesterday finished production of the country's first domestically designed regional jet, a project the mainland hopes will eventually help it challenge the world's major planemakers.
The manufacturer embarked on the ambitious programme to help meet what the government estimated as demand for 900 of the smaller regional jets in the next 20 years, officials and state media said. The nation is the world's second-largest market for passenger aircraft.
The mainland also hopes to reduce demand on imported planes and use the project as a springboard to build even larger jets, taking on companies like Boeing and Airbus.
Planes in the ARJ21 (advanced regional jet for the 21st century) family will be able to seat 70 to 100 people but the country hopes to build larger aircraft, initially comparable with the Boeing 737 or Airbus 320.
Avic I yesterday also announced new orders for 100 ARJ planes from Shenzhen Airlines and joint venture Kunpeng Airlines, bringing the total to 171. 'We have confidence in the Chinese market,' said Wang Yawei, the head of the civil aircraft department of Avic I.
Besides domestic airlines and leasing companies, one foreign order has been announced: a Laotian airline has pledged to buy two. The US Federal Aviation Administration has set up an office in Shanghai to help mainland aviation authorities certify the aircraft which will eventually help enlarge the overseas market.
Some foreign analysts have questioned whether the project will be commercially viable, but the government views building the plane as a matter of national pride so economics is not the first priority.
'The completion of production shows China is already capable of researching and manufacturing jet-propelled passenger aircraft,' Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan told a ceremony, which was broadcast live on national television.
The first plane, dubbed the 'Flying Phoenix', came off the production line in a northern Shanghai suburb. With officials looking on, the white plane with blue markings slowly rolled across the floor of the hangar, pulled by a utility vehicle.
In the 1970s, the mainland made an abortive attempt to build commercial planes.
Despite the assertion the ARJ is the first using the country's own intellectual property, local content is about 60 per cent.
About 19 foreign companies participated in the project. General Electric is supplying the engines, Hamilton Sundstrand the electrical power and Rockwell Collins the avionics.
Avic I aims to deliver the first planes to customers in the third quarter of 2009.