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China debuts new plane to rival Boeing and Airbus

The Independent logo The Independent 14/05/2017 Simon Calder
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The successful first test flight of a Chinese-built large aircraft has raised the prospect that British passengers may soon be flying on the jet.

The Comac C919 made its first flight from Shanghai at the weekend, staying airborne for 79 minutes. The event was screened live across China.

The plane is intended to compete directly with the two most successful short-haul aircraft, the Airbus A320 series and the Boeing 737. It is due to enter service in 2020 with China Eastern, and deployed on domestic and regional services. Almost all of the 500-plus orders so far are from airlines and leasing companies in the People’s Republic, where the standard short-haul jets are built by Airbus in Europe and Boeing in the US.

Six years ago, Ryanair signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the manufacturer “to participate in discussions on the development“ of the C919, which is designed to carry 150-200 passengers. The Irish airline promised to “share its experience and expertise” with the plane maker.

At the time, Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary said; “We are pleased that there is now a real alternative to Boeing and Airbus, and we are seriously interested in the development of a 200 seat variant of the C919 aircraft, and we look forward to its introduction into commercial service from 2018 onwards.

“We look forward to working closely with Comac to promote more competition among aircraft manufacturers, which can only be good for promoting competition between airlines and lowering the cost of air travel for consumers all across Europe towards the end of the decade.”

But sceptics in the aviation industry suggested that the move was really intended to strengthen Ryanair’s hand in its negotiations with Boeing over future orders. The airline, which is now the biggest carrier of passengers within Europe, has a fleet exclusively comprised of 737s, with 100 more on order and options on a further 100.

The Independent has asked Ryanair for an update on its fleet plans.

However, as competition in Europe intensifies, there is evidence that airlines are looking beyond the traditional suppliers to keep costs down.

A rival Irish carrier, CityJet, now flies a Russian-built plane, the Sukhoi Superjet, to and from London City airport. Passenger responses have been positive.

In the 1970s, the UK exported Trident aircraft to China, but none are now flying.

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