The first large Chinese-made passenger jet has taken off on its maiden flight, a key milestone for a country seeking a place in the global aviation market.
The C919 single-aisle jet, which can hold up to 168 passengers, soared over Pudong international airport in the commercial hub Shanghai as a crowd of thousands cheered.
China is one of the biggest aviation markets, but relies on foreign-made aircraft and has long sought to enter the lucrative global jet market, which is estimated to be worth $2 trillion over the next 20 years.
The maiden test flight had been pushed back at least twice since 2014 due to production issues. Friday’s flight included a skeleton crew of five people and carried no passengers.
— ChinaAviationReview (@ChinaAvReview) May 5, 2017
Aviation analyst Tom Ballantyne told Al Jazeera that Friday’s flight represented a “huge moment” for China.
“It is important for the Chinese government to show that its industrial processes are on par with the West or are heading in that direction,” he said.
C919 must ‘prove itself’
While the 39-metre long plane is made in China, foreign firms are playing key roles by supplying systems as well as engines.
The Chinese plane is touted to rival to the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, but a spokesman for the aircraft’s maker said it cannot compare.
“You can’t compare us to Boeing or Airbus, they’re in a different strategic stage … We took half a century to solve the first strategic issue [of plane development], it will also take many years to solve the second [market] problem,” Jeff Cheng, a spokesman for the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), told Reuters news agency prior to the maiden flight.
Ballantyne said it will be years before the C919 will be able to fully compete with Western-made planes.
“This Chinese aircraft will have to prove itself in operation before any Western airline will even consider purchasing it,” he said.
Ballantyne added that “it is very unlikely that it will be able to compete in terms of technology and economics with the new-generation aircraft” produced by of Boeing and Airbus.
Hundreds of orders
If Friday’s maiden flight is successful, COMAC, the aircraft’s maker, will seek certification from China’s civil aviation authority and foreign regulators.
COMAC has already received 570 orders and commitments from 23 customers, mainly Chinese-owned carriers and leasing companies.
The safety certification of the new plane – which state media says will have a catalog price tag of around $50 million, less than half that of a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 – could be among the biggest issues for the C919 internationally.
Questions remain regarding the safety approvals needed for the C919 to secure a foothold outside of China.
Chinese airlines are expected drive demand over the next two decades, buying nearly 7,000 planes – mostly from Boeing and Airbus.
China has dreamed of building its own civil aircraft since the 1970s when Jiang Qing, leader Mao Zedong’s wife and a member of the notorious “Gang of Four”, personally backed an attempt to do so. But the Y-10’s heavy weight made it impractical and only three were ever made.
China’s first domestically-made regional jet, the twin-engine regional ARJ21, flew its passengers in June 2016, eight years after its first test flight.
The development of the C919 a key step on the path laid out by Chinese leaders to transform the country into a creator of profitable technology.