Will China's Plans for Large Airliner Take Off?

The first made-in-Tianjin A-320 - a single-aisle, 150-seat aircraft popular with Chinese airlines - is expected to roll off the assembly line as early as next year.

Second, the tremendous growth in domestic air travel provides a powerful financial impetus. Industry and government studies estimated that Chinese airlines will need about 1,200 to 2,230 new passenger planes over the next 15 years.

Third, China is not starting from scratch and knows full well the difficulties involved.

Between 1970 and 1997, Beijing launched two attempts at building its own large passenger jet, which ended in failure after a host of technical, funding and political problems.

The first project, which produced three prototypes dubbed 'Yun 10', fell apart in 1985 amid a shortage of funds and lack of interest among Chinese airlines.

A second attempt faltered in 1997 after Beijing's foreign partners refused to share crucial aviation technology.

Aviation expert Zhou Jisheng, an industry veteran who was involved in the 'Yun 10' project, is convinced that Beijing has learnt its lessons from the two failed attempts.

The crucial difference this time, he told The Straits Times, is that the project will no longer be monopolised by government agencies and state-owned companies, and it will adopt a market-oriented approach.

Ever since the government announced that it would set up a joint stock company to lead the venture, speculation has been rife that Beijing would allow the private sector to invest in the airliner plan.

State media also reported two weeks ago that the government is likely to invite foreign partners to 'invest and co-develop components and products, and share the profits and risks'.

Mr Zhou said: 'The passenger jet is a commercial product that must be viable and competitive in the market. So we will need a market-oriented approach if we hope to succeed.'

An early litmus test will be the launch of China's first homemade mid-size regional jet, the ARJ-21, next year.

Engineers in Shanghai began assembling and testing the 70- to 110-seat jet last week, and expect its maiden flight to take place next March. Chinese airlines are said to have already placed 71 orders for the plane.

'I think foreign analysts underestimate China's capability,' said Mr Zhou.

'I cannot say they are entirely wrong, but if we do not try just because we are afraid of making mistakes, then we will never make progress.'


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