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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Commercial Aircraft Corp of China Ltd (Comac) aims to conduct the first flight of its much-delayed C919 passenger jet around the end of 2016 to early 2017, people close to the aircraft programme told Reuters.
The timing will allow engineers at the state-owned aerospace company to complete ground tests beforehand without undue haste, said the people, who were not authorized to speak with media on the matter and so declined to be identified.
Comac's C919 represents China's attempt to challenge Airbus Group SE (AIR.PA) and Boeing Co (BA.N) in the market for narrow-body aircraft. It is scheduled to reach its first buyers in 2018 after a series of production delays pushed deliveries back four years, though industry observers expect delays into the 2020s.
The company unveiled the airplane in November and said it had received 517 orders, mainly from Chinese lessors. However, the plane will not be airborne until around a year after its unveiling while Comac conducts ground tests.
"This will allow them to go through the tests gradually, and iron out as many kinks as possible in the aircraft's structure and design," said one of the people who is in regular contact with Comac officials.
"Their executives keep emphasizing that they would rather the aircraft be late than unsafe."
Officials at Shanghai-based Comac, which oversees the plane's development and production, declined to comment.
The C919 is a single-aisle plane akin to the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 used on flights of up to five hours, with seating for up to 168 passengers.
Single-aisle planes account for over half of all aircraft in service. They also make up 62 percent of all planes on order in the 20 years from 2015, with orders reaching 25,354 units, said consultancy Flightglobal Ascend.
The C919 is built with parts from such global suppliers as Honeywell International Inc (HON.N), United Technologies Corp (UTX.N) subsidiary Goodrich, Rockwell Collins Inc (COL.N) and Parker-Hannifin Corp (PH.N) unit Parker Aerospace.
Production delays, however, mean the C919 is likely to be only as good as current A320s and 737s at best, and that it will be technologically behind upgraded versions of those rival planes, industry analysts said.
Airbus has started delivering A320neo planes to customers, while Boeing will begin deliveries of the 737 Max next year.
Reporting by Siva Govindasamy; Editing by Christopher Cushing