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Chinese challenger to Boeing-Airbus duopoly appears

China has been throwing down the gauntlet to the U.S.’ feet not just in global politics but also in the passenger aviation sector with Beijing’s own C919 aircraft being the latest challenger to the Boeing-Airbus duopoly.

The C919 is expected to break the Boeing-Airbus duopoly in the international large passenger jet market and offer more choices for customers, said Wu Guanghui, chief designer of the plane.

On Friday, China Eastern Airlines became the first recipient of the C919 large passenger aircraft marking the first time ever for China’s civil aviation transport market to have a domestically developed mainline jetliner.

But before the plane is offered to passengers, it will undergo more than 100 hours of empty aircraft verification test flights, with stops including Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. It won’t be before the spring of 2023 that it is put into commercial use.

“From the maiden flight of C919 in 2017 to the acquirement of the airworthiness certificate in 2022, we have conducted a lot of experiments over the past five years, including ground and air experiments, to ensure the safety of the plane,” Wu said in an interview with China Central Television on Sunday.

He went on to stress that Chinese airlines could operate C919 on international routes, provided a foreign airline company obtains the airworthiness certificate from its own country first.

Wu said they plan to get the airworthiness certificate for C919 from other countries as soon as possible and provide more choices for global customers.

Cutting-edge but challenged by wealth of Western experience

“The large aircraft market is very big and still grows very fast. We expect the number of Chinese commercial aircraft and that of commercial aircraft worldwide will double in the next 20 years. At such a growth rate, the market will have enough room for the third or the fourth large-aircraft manufacturer [besides Airbus and Boeing]. I think we can have win-win cooperation in this market and our customers also need more choices,” said the chief designer.

Touting the C919 as one of the most advanced commercial aircraft in the world offering a plethora of advantages, Wu said that the producer was “full of confidence” in its product. “We hope C919 can go abroad and sell to other countries, and one day, it will fly around the globe,” said Wu.

The chief designer of the plane said that competing against other companies would be a great challenge to the design of the C919 as they enjoyed decades of development. “Meanwhile, we have to undertake the mission of leading the growth of China’s aviation industry. Our product has to be successful both technologically and commercially, which means we have to make a plane that not only has a good reputation, but sells well. All these have put great pressure on us,” said Wu.

He went on to say the success of C919 was attributed to the accumulation of China’s manufacturing capabilities over the past decades.

“It is not an easy task. We have done a lot of hard and meticulous work, and so far, we haven’t experienced many twists and turns. Over the past decades of reform and opening-up, China has witnessed rapid development in its industrial strength and manufacturing capabilities, and the accumulation of talents. This has enabled us to go so far with C919. In this sense, we are a very lucky generation,” said Wu.

Chinese fly Airbus, Boeing in doldrums

Over 1,100 is the standing number of known C919s orders with the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) announcing orders for 300 of the aircraft just last month.

But before the shining brand-new aircraft passes test flights and more units roll off the conveyor belt, China will have to content itself with planes from rival companies. Earlier in 2022, Beijing struck a deal with the European Airbus company to acquire jets worth EUR 16.08 billion. But Airbus operations were not limited to sale and purchase as the company also kicked off the production of A321 models at a facility in the northeastern city of Tianjin last month.

As for the US-based Boeing, it’s been experiencing turbulence in China following two fatal crashes that led authorities to ground all 737 Max models since 2019.

In July, the company said it may get approval for further deliveries but the US-China contretemps and a further deadly crash involving a Boeing 737-800 have brought the progress to a halt.

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