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China's first home-built passenger jet makes inaugural flight

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China's first domestically produced passenger jet has completed its maiden commercial flight, marking a milestone in the nation's decades-long effort to compete with Western rivals in the air.

China Eastern Airlines Flight MU9191 from Shanghai "arrived smoothly" in Beijing just after 12:30pm (04:30 GMT) on Sunday, about 40 minutes ahead of schedule, according to China's state-owned broadcaster CCTV.

Beijing hopes the C919 commercial plane will challenge foreign models like the Boeing 737 MAX and the Airbus A320. Its first homegrown jetliner with mass commercial potential would also cut the country's reliance on foreign technology as ties with the West deteriorate. However, many of its parts are still sourced from abroad.

President Xi Jinping hailed the project as a triumph of Chinese innovation while state media trumpeted the plane as a symbol of industrial prowess and national pride. "In the future, most passengers will be able to choose to travel by large, domestically produced aircraft," CCTV said.

The C919 is the product of state-backed Commercial Aviation Corp of China (COMAC), which began developing the jet 15 years ago.

The first COMAC C919 commercial flight is en route from Shanghai to Beijing. Follow China Eastern Airlines flight #MU9191 at https://t.co/dXejOIm3qn pic.twitter.com/sfM5o55wEo

— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) May 28, 2023

'Smooth, comfortable and memorable'

Footage showed passengers filing out of the plane and into the terminal before a few dozen staff and officials posed for photographs in a brief ceremony on the tarmac.

The flight "was extremely smooth, comfortable and memorable. I think I'll remember this fondly for some time to come," a male passenger told CCTV.

The broadcaster aired footage of the plane rising into the skies above Shanghai Hongqiao Airport, saying it had 130 passengers on board.

State media footage showed passengers gathering at the sun-drenched Shanghai airfield to admire the sleek white jet before embarking.

Passengers received red boarding passes and a "themed meal" to commemorate the flight, CCTV reported.

Other footage showed passengers waving national flags and singing a patriotic song while a cake was cut during the flight.

"After generations of endeavour, we finally broke the West's aviation monopoly and rid ourselves of the humiliation of '800 million shirts for one Boeing'," the state-owned Beijing Daily wrote, referring to the early years of economic reform about 40 years ago when China manufactured mainly low-value goods.

The C919 took off at 10:32 a.m. (02:32 GMT) from Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, where COMAC and China Eastern Airlines are headquartered, and it landed two hours later at Beijing Capital Airport, the flight tracker app Variflight showed.

"I'm confident about the plane. The flight was smoother than expected," one of the passengers told CCTV as he disembarked.

Aviation enthusiasts turn out for the first commercial flight of the COMAC C919 at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport [Aly Song/Reuters]

'New-generation aircraft'

The plane is scheduled to return to Shanghai on Sunday, then make a longer return flight to the southwestern city of Chengdu on Monday.

Lv Boyuan, a 21-year-old student and aviation enthusiast, was at Shanghai's airport on Sunday to fly to Chengdu, from which he planned to return on the C919 the following day.

"I've been really looking forward to its flight, especially because it's a new-generation aircraft, unlike Boeing and Airbus equivalents, which have been around for a number of years now," Lv said.

The C919 made its first flight in 2017 after years of delays and has undergone numerous test flights since.

State-backed China Eastern Airlines ordered five of the jets in March 2021. It took delivery of the first in December and has said it expects to receive the remainder this year.

Although assembled in China, the C919 relies heavily on Western components, including engines and avionics from firms such as General Electric Co, Safran SA and Honeywell International Inc.

'Important milestone'

From Monday, the C919 will operate on China Eastern's regular route between Shanghai and Chengdu, CCTV reported.

State media hailed the handover of the first of the narrow-body jets to China Eastern as "an important milestone" for China's aircraft industry.

Zhang Yujin, COMAC's deputy general manager, told Shanghai's state-backed digital newspaper The Paper in January that the company had taken about 1,200 orders for the C919.

Asia and China in particular are key targets for the European manufacturer Airbus and its American rival Boeing, which are looking to capitalise on growing demand for air travel from the country's vast middle class.

Last month, Airbus said it would double its production capacity in China, signing a deal to build a second final assembly line for the A320 in Tianjin.

The first assembly site in the northern city opened in 2008 and produces four A320s a month. Airbus hopes to increase that to six per month before the end of the year.

The C919, China's first domestically made large passenger jet, completed its inaugural commercial flight on Sunday, marking its official entry into the civil aviation market. #C919 pic.twitter.com/7vYfHbeFdo

— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) May 28, 2023

Li Hanming, an independent expert on Chinese aviation, said most C919 orders were letters of intent from domestic customers. "For the C919, the domestic market is big enough," Li said.

The international market is questionable given that neither European nor US regulators have authorised the use of the aircraft, said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of the industry publication FlightGlobal.

"Until this happens, key international markets will be closed to the C919," he said.

The C919's predecessor, the ARJ21, is a short-haul, 90-seat aircraft that entered commercial operation in 2016 and is flown by major Chinese airlines as well as Indonesia's TransNusa.

The ARJ21's use in Indonesia indicates the C919's international future lies mainly in the developing world, Waldron said.

COMAC is also developing a CR929 wide-body jet in collaboration with Russia.

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