China's New Jetliner, an Answer to Boeing and Airbus, Takes Flight

A C919 passenger jet taking off at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai on Friday. The plane symbolized the industrial might of an emerging superpower — and its dream to dominate a new 
technological era.CreditPool photo by

SHANGHAI — China’s commercial aerospace dreams took wing on Friday, as the first Chinese-built passenger jetliner completed its first public flight test, embodying the country’s ambitions to take on the industry champions,Boeing and Airbus
With a brisk breeze blowing through light smog under overcast skies, a large crowd of government officials and aerospace executives gathered to watch as the plane, a white C919, with a green-and-blue striped tail, underwent a lengthy preflight check, then rumbled down a runway and into the sky for a test flight that lasted about an hour.
The aircraft landed safely and Comac, its manufacturer, declared it a success. But the program still has a long journey ahead
It is years — if not decades — behind aircraft made by Airbus and Boeing that are cheaper to fuel and easier to maintain. Safety regulators in Europe, the United States and elsewhere still have to certify the plane before it can be sold outside China. And including parts like the engines, its cockpit and its belly, the C919 is filled with gear made by Western industrial giants like General Electric and Honeywell
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Many top leaders attended the event, a sign of the economic and geopolitical significance that Beijing attaches to its entry into open competition with Airbus and Boeing. Planning for the 158-seat C919 began more than a decade ago, but the plane has become a centerpiece of the country’s more recent Made in China 2025 plan to become largely self-sufficient in many high-tech goods and to export them as well
 We used to believe that it was better to buy than to build, better to rent than to buy,” President Xi Jinping of China told workers during a recent visit here. “We need to spend more on researching and manufacturing our "  own airliners
China’s investment in civilian aircraft manufacturing is enormous. The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, better known as Comac, unveiled the extent of its activities for the first time on Thursday, including a view of the second C919, still being assembled
That aircraft, coated in green anticorrosion paint and not yet displaying any airline’s colors, will not be ready until September, said Bao Pengli, Comac’s deputy director of project management for manufacturing and final assembly. Only after building six test planes will Comac decide whether it is ready for large-scale production, he said
Comac says it already has 570 orders from 23 buyers. But those have almost entirely come from Chinese companies and a couple of small overseas air carriers with links to China. A notable exception is an order for 20 planes from General Electric Capital Aviation Services; G.E. is also a big supplier to the C919 program
The C919 is designed to compete with the Airbus 320 and the Boeing 737, single-aisle planes that are the workhorses of the world’s airlines. For Comac, the plane represents the culmination of decades of work; for Airbus and Boeing, it is a challenge to a profitable duopoly that has endured for decades
One question is whether China has learned enough about aircraft manufacturing to make the C919 competitive with the 737 and A320. It is unclear that China can produce aircraft that are as efficient and reliable as even the current generation of Boeings and Airbuses
 If you have a slight rivet head protrusion, it does affect the air flow,” and that may mean extra fuel consumption, said Martin Craigs, chairman of the Aerospace Forum Asia, a commercial aircraft industry trade association
China has learned a lot in recent years about how to build single-aisle planes by making many parts for Boeing 737s and by assembling entire A320s for Airbus. But the country’s dream of becoming a competitor in the global market for commercial aircraft started in 1972, when President Nixon visited China in a Boeing 707
Chinese officials loved the plane and later bought 10 Boeing 707s, as well as 40 spare Pratt & Whitney engines. China to some extent copied the fuselages of the 707 for a small production run of Y-10 planes for flight experiments, using the additional engines
Commercial aircraft often share DNA with military aerospace programs. Boeing 707 siblings like the KC-135 tanker and RC-135 reconnaissance plane are used by the United States Air Force, while Airbus has a sizable military equipment division. China’s aerospace program is under particularly tight government oversight
Comac, based in Shanghai, is under the direct control of China’s cabinet. The state-owned enterprise that jointly owns Comac and is most closely linked to it is the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, or AVIC, which makes China’s fighters and bombers. It is also G.E.’s joint venture partner in producing sophisticated avionics equipment for the C919
G.E. said in an email that legal agreements protected its intellectual property from misuse
Aviation experts say that whatever its ability to compete on cost, the C919 is likely to be safe
Arnold Barnett, the dean of aviation safety statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that China had had only one fatal crash in the past decade, even as its aviation sector expanded to become the second busiest after that of the United States. One person has been killed per 70 million passengers boarded in China, compared with one passenger per 25 million boardings in the West, he said
Gary Moran, the head of Asia aviation insurance at Aon, a large global insurance broker, said that as insurers assessed the risks of a new aircraft like the C919, they were likely to be reassured by the large role that multinationals had played. In addition to the avionics, G.E. has also collaborated on the engines, while Honeywell is providing auxiliary power systems, wheels, brakes, fly-by-wire controls and navigation equipment
For China, the C919 is just the beginning. Even if the plane proves less fuel-efficient than Western alternatives, the state-controlled airline industry may still be required to buy it, and the Chinese aviation market in the coming years is expected to rival only the American market in size and perhaps surpass it
And although the plane represents a new challenger for aircraft sales, Airbus and Boeing, increasingly dependent on Chinese airlines for sales as well as on Chinese suppliers for parts, publicly welcomed its arrival
Comac is already looking past the C919 to the design and manufacture of a wide-body jet that would compete with larger, more profitable planes like the Boeing 747 and the A340. Steven Lien, the president for Asia at Honeywell’s aerospace division, said that Russia and China were in the final stages of negotiating a plan to jointly design and produce it
Honeywell expects $15 billion in sales to the C919 program during its 20 or more years of production. But Honeywell plans to watch Western export control regulations closely in this process, he said
 We follow them very, very closely,” he said, “and we would never take a
. "shortcut
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