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China spreads wings with its first passenger aircraft

December 22, 2007|From Times Wire Services

SHANGHAI — China's first fully homegrown commercial aircraft, a 90-passenger plane intended to be sold eventually for export, rolled off the production line Friday.

The ARJ-21 -- for advanced regional jet for the 21st century -- would compete in China, the world's fastest-growing aviation market, against mid-size aircraft offered by Brazil's Embraer and Canada's Bombardier Inc.

In a nationally televised ceremony, the jet, dubbed the Xiangfeng or "Flying Phoenix," was towed into a hangar at the Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Factory amid flashing laser lights and rousing music.

"Today, China's aviation industry has turned over a new leaf," said Lin Zuoming, general manager of China Aviation Industry Corp. I, the plane's manufacturer, which is also known as AVIC I. "A country's aviation industry is not complete unless it is able to produce civilian aircraft."

The maiden flight for the the ARJ-21 is planned for March. It reportedly has a flight range of 2,300 miles.

AVIC I plans to begin deliveries to customers in the third quarter of 2009. Original plans called for the jet to be ready by late 2005, but design problems forced a delay.

The company predicts the ARJ-21 could grab 60% of the domestic market for mid-size regional airliners over the next 20 years. China will need about 900 mid-sized regional jets during that time, the firm estimates.

Winning orders against Bombardier and Embraer will be a challenge because of the ARJ-21's unproven technology, analyst Jim Eckes said.

"It'll be a hard sell," said Eckes, managing director at Hong Kong-based aircraft-leasing company Indoswiss Aviation.

AVIC I Vice President Hu Wenming acknowledged in September that it might take time to attract customers.

"We're well aware that in the international market there's not a very good impression of China's ability to build commercial aircraft," Hu said.

The ARJ-21 reportedly carries a $34-million price tag. A similar-sized Embraer 175 jet costs about $30 million. Buyers such as Shandong Airlines Co., Shanghai Airlines Co. and the government of Laos have placed orders for 73 ARJ-21 planes, AVIC I said in September.

Chinese aviation authorities are working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to win the jet's certification abroad.

The manufacturer also plans to build cargo and business jets built on the ARJ-21 platform.

AVIC I said it invested $1.1 billion to develop the ARJ-21, compared with as much as $20 billion needed to develop and market a plane in the West.

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