The Cable

China’s First Civilian Airliner — And Industry Ambitions — Take Maiden Flight

Chinese aviation, prepare for take-off.

comac crop

There’s a new kid on the aviation block. China’s first-ever domestically designed and built civilian airliner took its maiden flight Thursday in a watershed moment for the country’s aviation industry and new competitor to Western giants that have the market cornered.

On Friday, a crowd of some 3,000 Chinese officials and industry execs gathered at the Shanghai airport to watch the test flight of the C919, China’s answer to the Boeing-737 and Airbus-320, the workhorse planes for global airlines. The C919 landed safely after an hour-long test flight, marking a major milestone in China’s long-term ambition to crack into the global civilian airline market.

Built by state-owned aircraft corporation Comac, the C919 is designed to seat 155-175 with a range of 2,530 miles.

U.S.-based Boeing and Europe-based Airbus Group have in essence dominated that market from the beginning, but Western executives may not be sweating the C919 just yet. The Chinese project was riddled with technical problems and delays from the outset (the test flight Friday was originally scheduled for three years ago) and it relies heavily on foreign technologies to function. Comac also still hasn’t proven itself capable of producing high quality planes that can pass toptier Western safety inspections on part with the Boeing-Airbus duopoly.

Comac announced it’s already received 570 orders from 23 customers, but nearly every sale comes from Chinese companies. (The plane also has one U.S. buyer: General Electric Capital Aviation Services, a supplier to the C919 program, ordered 20 planes from Comac.) And that’s a small drop in the bucket compared to Boeing, which can roll out 400-500 Boeing 737’s a year.

Still, industry experts agree Boeing and Airbus are watching Comac with a wary eye. The International Air Transport Association estimates China will overtake the United States as the world’s top aviation market by 2024. Over the next 20 years, the IATA forecasts there will be an additional 817 million passengers from China alone, making it the world’s fastest growing market. And Comac has the home-field advantage.

Photo credit: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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