HONG KONG - CHINA'S hopes of having an internationally competitive homegrown aerospace industry are largely riding on the wings of a modest aircraft now being developed at a factory in Shanghai.
ARJ21, a regional jetliner due to make its first test flight in March, will be the first Chinese-designed, Chinese-made jet to seek US certification, with the goal of seizing part of the fast-growing global market for regional passenger planes.
'The ARJ21 will be fast, cover long distances and have between 50 and 110 seats, filling what is missing from the current regional market,' said Mr Chen Jin, vice-president of the commercial aircraft division of China Aviation Industry Corporation 1 (Avic), the jetliner's maker.
'It will be convenient as it will allow clients to travel across regions and vast distances,' he said in a presentation to industry representatives at the Asian Aerospace show in Hong Kong last week.
'Do we really need all these hubs? Not when we have the ARJ21.'
For Chinese aviation, ARJ21's debut, nearly six years in the making, is as keenly anticipated as the launch of the Airbus A380 or the Boeing Dreamliner.
A recent industry forecast by the Canadian aircraft maker Bombardier Aerospace estimated that over the next 20 years, an additional 11,200 aircraft would need to be built to meet demand in the 20- to 149-seat market segment.
Of that, the Chinese market would account for nearly 15 per cent of global deliveries, or 1,660 aircraft.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China is also anxious to encourage indigenous manufacturers of this type of aircraft to develop the domestic aviation sector.
Part of China's strategy of making air travel more accessible to the population is to improve direct connections between cities, expand regional and low-cost services and increase the availability of air services in the country's western regions.
Air travel in China is now centred very heavily on a few hubs. The 20 largest airports are estimated to fill 80 per cent of passenger volumes. Smaller aircraft on point-to-point routes would take the pressure off overcrowded hubs and improve flight frequency and the efficiency of aircraft use.
The ARJ21, or Advanced Regional Jet, would serve this niche well. The first of the aircraft to roll off the assembly line in October 2009 will be a 90-seat version with a standard range of 2,225km. An extended-range version will allow it to fly 3,700km non-stop.
It will be the first commercial jet fully designed in China, although the engines are being supplied by General Electric and the avionics are also foreign-sourced.
Bombardier announced in June that it would invest US$100 million (S$152 million) in the further development of the ARJ21 with the aim of building a bigger-capacity version and helping Avic win foreign certification, particularly from the US Federal Aviation Administration.
It will receive a royalty for each ARJ21 sold.
So far, there are orders and expression of interest for more than 60 aircraft, all from Chinese companies such as Shandong Airlines.
Analysts say that ultimately, China must look overseas to recoup development costs.
Mr Jim Eckes, consultant at Indoswiss Aviation in Hong Kong, said that means going up against the big manufacturers without an established brand or reputation.
'The marketing costs are going to be tremendous,' he said.
'They'll have to spend at least another US$500 million just to promote the plane. They're going to have to be in touch with end-users every day.'
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE