The first Chinese-made passenger jet has taken to the skies on its inaugural commercial flight, in a symbolic moment for China’s technological independence after years of delays for the project.
The single-aisle C919 flew from Shanghai to Beijing on Sunday following more than a decade of development and an estimated $72bn in support from Beijing.
The aircraft has boosted the aspirations of Chinese leader Xi Jinping as he aims for technological self-sufficiency for his country in the face of intensifying trade tensions with the US. The prospect, albeit long term, of a Chinese passenger jet industry could pose a threat to the Boeing-Airbus duopoly.
The C919 was built by state-backed aerospace champion Comac and the first flight was operated by national carrier China Eastern. Domestic media heralded the event as “a day to remember” and noted that Comac had received more than 1,000 orders from 32 customers, as of the end of 2022.
“The successful development of the C919 indicates that China has the ability to independently develop large passenger aircraft,” Xinhua, the state news agency said.
Despite the project being under way since 2008 and a maiden flight first planned for 2014, excitement has been building in recent months as the jet received regulatory approval in China and moved closer to commercial operation.
In October, President Xi hosted the C919 development team at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, praising the group “as the backbone” of the country and “heroes”.
“Having Chinese airliners fly in the sky embodies the will of our country, the dream of our nation and the expectations of our people,” Xi said at the time, adding that the advances in domestic manufacturing would “help realise the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation”.
Analysts have said they expect Comac will start to chip away at the market share of Boeing and Airbus in China’s massive aviation market as well as in some developing countries. However, the C919 does not have regulatory approval in the US or Europe.
Analysts have also pointed out that the aircraft is reliant on western suppliers for critical components. That raises the possibility that the aviation industry could become enmeshed in tightening controls on technology exports from the US to China that have already hit the country’s chipmakers.
Airline safety has faced renewed scrutiny in China since last March, when China Eastern Airlines flight MU5735, a Boeing 737 carrying 132 people, crashed in the southern Guangxi region, killing all on board.
As the C919 took flight on Sunday, state media stressed the jet’s safety credentials, including tests in extreme natural environments including high temperature, high humidity, severe cold, gusts and freezing conditions.
“Its safety, reliability, and environmental protection performance have been comprehensively assessed,” Xinhua said.