* China's COMAC says GECAS orders 10 C919 jets, Hebei 20,
Joy Air 20
* COMAC says has provisional deal with a reborn Eastern Air
* Global passenger jet demand seen rising sharply over next
* Low key official presence at show, Congress in spotlight
By Alison Leung and Tim Hepher
ZHUHAI, China, Nov 13 China unveiled 50 new
orders for its COMAC C919 passenger jet at the opening of the
country's main air show and promised to assist in the rebirth of
one of the most famous names in aviation -- defunct U.S. carrier
Eastern Air Lines.
Potentially worth several billion dollars, the orders for
China's first commercial passenger jet dominated the first day
of the China Airshow, held every two years in the southern city
of Zhuhai, along with fresh evidence of China's military
The C919 is designed to challenge Airbus and Boeing
in the largest segment of the $100 billion annual
Tuesday's orders for the 150-seat jet boosted the official
tally to 380, reaching the state-owned manufacturer's declared
breakeven point of 300-400 orders.
However, Western analysts say it will be some time before
the aircraft, due to make its maiden flight in 2014, proves both
its technical worth and its financial viability.
"You can always build a jet -- you can practically Google
it, in fact," said Virginia-based aerospace analyst Richard
Aboulafia. "But the real skill is creating something the market
wants and then selling and financing it."
Confirming a Reuters report, Commercial Aircraft Corporation
of China (COMAC) announced orders for 20 aircraft each from
local carriers Joy Air and Hebei Aviation Group.
Its only foreign customer GECAS, the leasing and financing
unit of General Electric which co-produces the engines,
agreed to buy 10 more, taking its total order for the plane to
Others that have expressed interest include Irish low-cost
carrier Ryanair and British Airways, according
Separately, COMAC forecast the global passenger fleet would
double in size over the next 20 years, thanks mainly to a sharp
increase in demand from China where annual passenger traffic
would grow an average 7.2 percent each year to 2031.
In its 2012-2031 Market Forecast report, COMAC predicted
31,739 new planes, valued at $3.9 trillion, would be needed
worldwide over the next two decades to meet demand. China alone
would need nearly 5,000 new planes in that time.
In a surprise move, the state manufacturer also announced
tentative purchase plans by investors said to be planning to
resurrect U.S.-based Eastern Air Lines, which went bankrupt in
There have been sporadic reports of efforts to relaunch the
airline, whose forked logo was seen on display as a backdrop to
Tuesday's signing ceremony.
The announcement puzzled several delegates, including some
who had done business with the original Eastern, who said little
had been heard about the re-invented airline's plans or its
"We do not comment on our customers," a COMAC spokesman
Once led by former World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker and
later by former Apollo astronaut Frank Borman, Miami-based
Eastern Air Lines rose to become one of the largest airlines in
the world before losing a battle against low-cost competition.
"We are still a young company. The start-up investment has
not been finalised yet," Jack Shi, senior vice president for
commercial development of Eastern Air Lines, told Reuters.
Shi addressed a packed hall of Chinese airline executives
and media, but there were no other top executives present from
the U.S. carrier which Shi said had been reconstituted in 2008
in Miami, the original hub of Eastern.
He said the airline, which included some previous employees
of the bankrupted group, was shopping for planes to start
services late next year from Miami to unspecified destinations
in Latin America.
"Eastern used to be the largest U.S. airline to serve the
Latin America market," he said. "A lot of preparation work needs
to be done, such as applying for an air route."
Shi told his Chinese audience that once reborn, Eastern
wanted to be the first operator to fly COMAC jets in the United
States just as it had introduced the European Airbus there.
CONGRESS STEALS SPOTLIGHT
This week's air show is being attended by a record 650
exhibitors including dozens of foreign companies drawn to China
by the growth of its aviation sector, projected to displace the
United States as the world's largest aviation market soon.
But there was a notably low-key official presence as top
regional representatives and government leaders congregated in
Beijing for the ruling Communist Party's 18th Congress, marking
a transitional period in Chinese leadership which has slowed the
pace of business across many strategic sectors.
The exhibition featured prototypes of a new Chinese business
aircraft and a model of a new stealth fighter that China
apparently hopes to build for export.
Industry publication Aviation Week noted the model bore a
"striking resemblance" to an aircraft recently photographed
flying from the Shenyang Aircraft factory, which captured
worldwide interest from military analysts and publications.