GUANGZHOU -- China's government is increasing the pressure on domestic airlines to use more jets developed and manufactured in the country, a push that could present a big challenge to Boeing of the U.S. and Airbus, the European multinational.
China's three leading airlines recently placed sizable orders for domestically made regional jets. One airline is also setting up a company to operate a fleet of domestic jetliners.
Beijing envisions a future in which Chinese airlines are less dependent on Boeing and Airbus, and in which made-in-China aircraft find overseas customers.
China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines and Air China, the nation's flag carrier, announced on Aug. 30 that they will each purchase 35 ARJ21 regional jets made by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or Comac.
Deliveries of the jets, which list at $38 million, are to begin next year and run through 2024.
The ARJ21, developed under a national project that started in 2002, made its maiden flight in 2008 and entered commercial service in 2016, becoming the first Chinese jetliner to be put into commercial use.
With 78 to 90 seats, the aircraft is roughly the same size as the Mitsubishi SpaceJet, which had been known as the Mitsubishi Regional Jet. The two models of the Japanese twin-engine aircraft come in configurations that can seat from 70 to 92 passengers.
While Comac has so far received orders for some 600 ARJ21s, only 10 or so have been delivered, mainly to Chengdu Airlines, a regional airline partly owned by Comac.
Brazil's Embraer has a solid presence in the global regional jet market, and Chinese airlines have been big customers.
But Beijing wants to see more Chinese jets in China's skies. In February, a senior civil aviation official declared the launch of a government-backed plan to promote the use of domestically made jetliners, and the three big carriers' recent ARJ21 orders are early signs of its effectiveness.
In addition to purchasing ARJ21s, China Eastern Airlines has also expanded its business jet unit, which operates a fleet of planes. The carrier, renamed One Two Three Airline in August, will serve as a platform for buying more ARJ21s that will fly short-haul routes.
In addition, China Southern Airlines and Air China seem to be considering the establishment of new airlines that will rely on ARJ21s.
The Chinese government, which tends to be slow and cautious in approving new airlines, appears to have given the green light to these plans to help the ARJ21 make domestic inroads.
Comac intends to ramp up ARJ21 production now that it has government policy support.
The company, which had the capacity to produce 15 ARJ21s in 2018, intends to increase that to 25 this year and to 30 in 2020, according to China Business News. The company plans to deliver more than 100 of the jets in the next five years.
The jet maker's growth agenda also calls for developing a 160-seat airliner, the C919.
The company aims to obtain Chinese certification for the bigger bird in 2021 and has applied for certification with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. This would allow Comac to export its jets and directly challenge the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737.
Another passenger plane developed and made in China is the Xian MA60, a turboprop produced by Xi'an Aircraft Industrial, a unit of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, or Avic.
The Xian MA60, which made its maiden flight in 2000, has been exported to Zimbabwe and Laos.
In 2018, the number of air travelers in China grew 15.2% to reach 670 million, making the country the second largest aviation market after the U.S., according to the International Air Transport Association.
Among the top five markets, China's was the only one to post double-digit growth last year. The other three markets are Britain, Spain and Japan.
The enormous growth of Chinese aviation could provide a powerful thrust for the country's foray into the international jetliner market, one that has the potential to reshape the global aircraft industry.