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You May Fly on a Made-in-China Aircraft Sooner Than You Think

While the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) has yet to win any big international orders with its C919 passenger airplane, you may be flying on an aircraft manufactured by China's state-owned commercial aerospace company sooner than you think.

John Leahy, chief operating officer of Airbus said he believes Comac will emerge as a serious competitor in the mainstream commercial aviation market over the next 20 years.

"If you [ask], are we worried about competitors in the next 10 years? The answer is no, not really. In 20 years, it's almost a certainty," Leahy told CNBC at the Singapore Airshow.

"Remember, Airbus was started in 1970, it took 20 years before we were just being taken seriously, I think that would be the same with any manufacturer, no matter the country behind that," he added.

So far, Comac has won 400 orders for the C919, the mainland's largest locally produced aircraft intended to compete with the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images The 'iron bird' test platform, a plane-like fuselage simulator, for the C919
The majority of customers for the narrow bodied, single-aisle passenger airliner are still domestic carriers such as Air China, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines and Hainan Airlines. 

This, however, did not appear to be a concern for Comac. Tian Min, Comac's chief financial officer, said the company's focus for the time being is the domestic market.

(Read more: Private jet makers bet on US, not Asia for big orders)

"We realize the development of an airline takes a long time, so our estimation, even though we don't have a plan yet to compete for the market with Boeing and Airbus, is that may take us dozens of years," Min said at a conference during the Singapore Airshow.

The C919's will undertake its maiden test flight in 2015, one year later than originally planned, with the first delivery scheduled for 2016.

David Stewart, vice president of consultancy ICF International says even if the C919 doesn't gain traction outside of China, the next aircraft they manufacture will be a success.

(Read more: Asia's airplane fleet to triple by 2032: Boeing)

"The Chinese don't really worry about 10, or 20 years. It's where will they be in 50 years' time. They are on a learning curve, and it doesn't really matter to them how long it takes. At some point there will be ABC - Airbus, Boeing, Comac," said Stewart, who expects Comac will begin to present genuine competition to Boeing and Airbus in the next two decades.

"They will break out of China with the C919, because they know they have to develop their customer support infrastructure to be able to support planes outside of China," he added.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see C919's flying in Africa, said Stewart. Beijing may make an investment into an African infrastructure project in exchange for orders of the aircraft for example, he said. 

(Read more: China's open skies plan is huge: Honeywell)

"It's all part of a grand experiment to learn how to do this sort of thing, Africa could be a testing ground," Stewart said.

Comac's expansion into the global market, however, won't be without major challenges.

In addition to overcoming negative perceptions over the safety of products produced in the mainland, the company must set up a large amount of infrastructure in order to support its fleet.

"Airlines exist on having a reliable operation. To do that you have to have spares and technical support in the right place, doing that in English, at a distance, they don't have any track record at all on that, so that's their biggest challenge," said Stewart.

—By CNBC's Ansuya Harjani. Follow her on Twitter: @Ansuya_H


File pictures of Comac's C919

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