China’s New Jet Completes First Flight as Xi Modernizes Economy

  • Test termed success for single-aisle C919 built by Comac
  • Plane is central to Xi’s dream of advancing Chinese industry

China successfully completed the first test flight of its home-built modern passenger jet, bolstering President Xi Jinping’s ambition of turning China into an advanced economy.

Amid cheers from onlookers, the C919 airliner took off Friday from Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, the home base of its builder Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China Ltd., or Comac. The jet landed back about an hour and 19 minutes later after cruising at 3,000 meters (9,840 feet). The single-aisle plane, which is designed to seat as many as 174 people, is slated to enter commercial service with China Eastern Airlines Corp. in 2019.

“It shows China made a historic breakthrough in its years-old dream of building a big aircraft,” Comac said in a statement, calling the test a “complete success.” The nation’s State Council, the top administrative authority, sent a congratulatory note to the designers.

QuickTake Will ‘Made in China’ Threaten Boeing and Airbus?

The test flight, after repeated delays, marks another step in Xi’s ambitious ‘Made in China 2025’ program, which identified aerospace among sectors that could accelerate China’s advancement. The government has said the ability to build and fly a large commercial aircraft is the “flower’’ and “pearl’’ of modern manufacturing. 

The C919 would be the first major competitor for Airbus SE and Boeing Co. in the most popular sector of the airliner market and gives Comac a home advantage in what is set to become the world’s biggest aircraft market. Boeing estimates China will need 6,810 aircraft worth more than $1 trillion in the two decades through 2035.

“There’s a lot riding on the C919,’’ said Xu Yongling, a military test pilot and a member of the Beijing-based Chinese Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “The expectation for the C919 is not to become the best-selling single-aisle aircraft in the market, but rather become a stepping stone for COMAC to build something better, with indigenous technology.’’

VIP Guests

COMAC plans to make six planes for tests, and the second one is getting ready at the final assembly workshop in Shanghai, the builder said. Guests who witnessed Friday’s test flight included Vice Premier Ma Kai and Han Zheng, Communist Party secretary from Shanghai.

The five people on board the test plane were the captain, co-pilot, an observer and two engineers.

Getting into the major league with Airbus and Boeing may be a few decades away as customers typically prefer aircraft with proven track record, reliability and safety, analysts said. COMAC is seeking certification for the C919 from European agencies.

“Comac could well be an option for us,” said William Walsh, chief executive officer of IAG SA, the owner of British Airways Plc, adding he’d only seriously consider the plane when IAG reviews its existing fleet of short-haul Airbus A320-family jets in the long-term. More immediately, he’s expecting lower prices from the added competition.

Walsh, a former pilot who’s flown in the plane’s simulator, said he’s due to meet with Comac next month to further advise on features that IAG looks for in a new model. 

“A new entrant will have an impact on pricing,” Walsh told analysts on a call Friday. “We’ve seen that to some degree with the launch of the CSeries. It’s something that both airlines and the manufacturers are aware of.”

The C919 designation was chosen partly to reflect the idea of long life in Chinese numerology.

With a maximum range of 3,450 miles, the plane is powered by two LEAP-1C engines from CFM International Inc., a joint venture between Safran SA and General Electric Co. Other key system suppliers include Honeywell International Inc., Rockwell Collins Inc., Liebherr-International Deutschland GmbH, Thales SA and Panasonic Corp.

To read a story on how the Chinese plane is made with U.S. technology, click here.

The test flight of the plane follows China’s launch last month of its first domestically built aircraft carrier. The milestones, coming within weeks, burnish Xi’s credentials as a modernizer before he presides over the ruling Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress later this year.

Airplane enthusiasts watch.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Almost a billion people will fly to, from or within China by 2025, the International Air Transport Association estimates. Over the next two decades, about 75 percent of the jets ferrying those passengers will be single-aisle -- a category dominated by Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’s A320 family.

To read David Fickling’s column on the C919, click here.

In an email, Boeing congratulated Comac for the “successful development” of the C919, while Airbus said it welcomes competition, “which is good for the development of the industry.”

Comac, which had postponed the test flight at least twice, says it has commitments from 23 customers for about 570 planes, with Shanghai-based China Eastern lined up to take the first delivery.

Next Aircraft

Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at Teal Group, said China may have to wait till its next aircraft to really break the duopoly for jets that can carry more than 100 passengers.

“At the moment, they are in a real replication mode, which is not where you want to be,” he said. “First off, they need to privatize and open their supply chain up to a global network, rather than just people who will transfer yesterday’s technology.” 

Comac has set its sights on building a wide-body aircraft. It is forming a joint venture with Russia’s United Aircraft Corp. to develop a twin-aisle jet.

The Comac Shanghai Research and Development Center in Shanghai.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

“The C919 is a testament to China’s civil aviation research and manufacturing capability,” said Yu Zhanfu, executive director at Roland Berger Management Consultants Shanghai Co. “China’s had a lot of success in making rockets, making spaceships. It shows the country is capable of mega tech-intensive manufacturing projects.”

— With assistance by Dong Lyu, Gregory Turk, Andrea Rothman, Lena Lee, Bruce Einhorn, and Benjamin D Katz

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