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China to Develop Large Commercial Aircraft by 2020, Official Says

China expects to start making homegrown large commercial aircraft by 2020, an aviation industry official said Monday, raising the possibility of future competition for Boeing and Airbus in the country's booming market for new planes.

The ambitious target points to rising confidence among officials and the government-funded aircraft industry following apparent success in developing China's first commercial jet aircraft, the mid-size ARJ-21 regional jet, the first of which is due to fly next year.

With China expected to buy 2,230 new planes between now and 2025, the government has fast-tracked development plans to ensure that its own companies grab a share.

The large aircraft project is underpinned by China's strong economic growth, technology advances, and brawny manufacturing base, Liu Daxiang, of China Aviation Industry Corporation I, or AVIC I, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.

"We are now fairly well conditioned for making large aircraft," said Liu, deputy head of the company's science and technology development department, and a delegate to the national legislature meeting this month in Beijing.

China's aviation ambitions have stumbled along for decades, but experts said the latest plan appeared to be plausible given the technological prowess China has gained from building parts for foreign makers. An agreement with Airbus to open a final assembly line in China for its mid-size A320 aircraft will be particularly advantageous, they said.

"From a technical standpoint, it is realistic," said Richard Pinkham, a Singapore-based analyst with the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation. The 13-year timeframe allowed for plenty of lead time, he said.

Liu said a large aircraft program would spawn new technological advances and secondary industries. He gave no precise details about the size of the plane, although large aircraft are generally considered to have about 200 seats and a payload of 100 tons.

China has set a target of completing designs for a large aircraft by 2010. China has also proposed producing its own aircraft engines.

Underscoring the national prestige China attracts to such projects, Liu said large aircraft development would "inspire the nation" similar to the hugely successful manned space program.

A large Chinese jet would likely find a market in China, where the government still exerts strong control over state-owned airlines.

However, Pinkham warned such a plane would face major difficulties establishing itself in the international market.

"They are going to have to have some seriously competitive pricing before they can convince a major airline to try their planes," he said.

Chicago-based Boeing took an early lead in Chinese aircraft market, selling more than 700 planes here since 1972, including 60 orders for the company's new 787 Dreamliner.

Chinese airlines also have about 100 Airbus planes in their fleets with dozens more on order, including five of the company's troubled A380 super jumbo.

China abandoned a project to build large aircraft in the 1970s, but in recent years has become a major supplier of parts for Boeing and Airbus. In 2004, Brazil's Embraer SA became the first foreign aircraft maker to set up a Chinese factory.

The 70-110 seat ARJ-21, or Advanced Regional Jet for the 21st Century, is expected to begin flight tests next spring, but has already received more than 70 orders from Chinese airlines, according to Xinhua. AVIC I is building the plane in the northern city of Xi'an in partnership with 19 foreign parts suppliers.

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