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Crowds cheer as first Chinese-made passenger plane makes maiden flight

The first large Chinese-made passenger airliner has completed its maiden test flight, a milestone in China's long-term goal to break into the Western-dominated aircraft market.

The take-off of the C919 bought cheers and applause from hundreds of invited guests at Shanghai Pudong International Airport and was broadcast live on state television.

The jet soon became invisible on a windy and polluted day in Shanghai, which was also in the path of dense sandstorms from the north.

After the one-and-a-half hour flight, the test pilots came smiling from the plane, wearing orange overalls with the Chinese flag.

With the flight, the official Xinhua News Agency said China had become "one of the world's top makers of jumbo aircraft", the fourth large jet producer after the US, Europe and Russia.

China is touting the C919 as a rival to single-aisle jets such as the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737.

It was originally due to begin flying in 2014 and be delivered to buyers in 2016, but has been beset by delays blamed on manufacturing problems.

It is now unlikely to carry commercial passengers until at least 2019.

State-owned manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or Comac, will seek certification from the civil aviation authority and foreign regulators before making any deliveries.

Bao Pengli, deputy director of Comac's project management department, said it planned to make two planes a year from now to 2019 to obtain proof of safe flight before mass production.

Comac says it has 570 orders from 23 domestic and foreign customers, with most from state-owned Chinese airlines.

The handful of foreign customers includes GE Capital Aviation Services and Thailand's City Airways.

The plane can be configured with 155-175 seats and has a standard flight length of 4,075km (2,530m).

Boeing forecasts that an annual 6% growth in China's air passenger traffic over the next two decades will create demand for 6,810 new planes worth a trillion dollars. Of the new planes, 75% are expected to be single-aisle.

Airbus has five joint ventures in China, including a factory that assembles A320s in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, that opened in 2008.

Comac says more than 200 Chinese companies and 36 universities have been involved in research and development of the C919.

But it relies on foreign-made technology for critical systems, including engines, which are made by CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric's aviation subsidiary and France's Safran Aircraft Engines.

The first deliveries of Chinese-developed engines are expected in 2020, according to the company making them, AVIC Commercial Aircraft Engine Company.

Airbus delivered 153 aircraft to Chinese operators last year, including 141 from the A320 family, Eric Chen, president of Airbus Commercial Aircraft China, said.

"We believe C919 will bring new competition to the market," he said. "And we welcome competition, which is good for the development of the industry."

Boeing said it delivered more than 160 planes to China in 2016, and more than half of China's fleet are Boeing planes.

AP

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