Beijing's aviation dream still waiting for take-off

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 November, 2010, 12:00am

Along with China's emerging reputation as a leader in high-speed railways, last week's Zhuhai air show suggested the country may soon be making headlines on the production of commercial aircraft as well. Letters of intent to buy the C919, a narrow-bodied aircraft made by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, have been issued by six potential customers, four of which are mainland airlines and two are leasing companies. The extent to which the companies are committed to actually buying the aircraft is unclear, so it would be premature to see this as a new dawn in China's aviation history. But it does mark another significant step towards being a reputable producer of aircraft.

Details of the planes have yet to be finalised but they are expected to seat between 150 and 190 passengers and will compete with the Airbus A320. The first flights will not take place until 2014. The fact that companies are willing to express an interest in buying such planes before they even exist is, arguably, a sign of confidence in China's ability to produce reliable and quality aircraft.

China has already proven itself capable of mastering the most complex of technologies ranging from simple daily merchandise to space travel. There is no reason to doubt it can also become a leading innovator of planes. On the other hand, the jury is still out on whether China can become a successful player in the aviation industry. As has been witnessed in its parallel pursuit of becoming a leader in the high-speed rail industry, success in the area of high-tech transport relies on more than the ability to produce equipment. Airlines have complained of poor air traffic control over China's skies, while there have been an increasing number of reported 'black flights' - unauthorised flights from private jets.

Meanwhile, it is still unclear how the country's plans to develop high-speed railways can be reconciled with its ambitious plans to construct airports around the nation. While Chinese planes may now be catching some global attention, the success of China's aviation industry remains to be seen.