China has taken the wraps off its design for what it calls its "big plane," a twin-engine single-aisle airliner that will seat up to 190 people. A large-scale model of the C919 is on prominent display at the Beijing Expo airshow this week and seems as much a political statement as a business initiative. "To develop the large-scale airliner is a strategic decision of the Chinese government and one of the major programs for building up an innovation-oriented country," Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang told a Chinese publication last month. Whether it will, as hoped by the Chinese, represent serious competition for Boeing and Airbus in a segment of the market virtually owned by them is a matter of conjecture.
China says it can deliver a technologically superior aircraft that burns less fuel and costs less than either the Boeing 737 or the A320. Analysts who've studied the program are skeptical whether China can deliver on those claims but it likely won't have to in order to sell airplanes. China's now-substantial middle class has considerable wanderlust; the domestic airlines are expected to need up to 4,000 new airplanes over the next 20 years and will undoubtedly be encouraged to consider the C919. Even if they're shut out of the market for whole airplanes, Western manufacturers stand to profit, however. Many analysts believe the C919 will rely heavily on imported technology.