The cavernous building that will house the final assembly line of China’s own passenger plane is virtually empty, except for an enormous Chinese flag and slogans to rally the workers who will one day produce the C919.

It is a huge engineering challenge but, if the project proceeds on schedule, a prototype of the single-aisle plane will take to the skies by the end of next year.

Its mission is to compete with US aircraft maker Boeing’s 737 and the A320 of European consortium Airbus.

The 300m-long hangar where it will be put together, next to Shanghai’s Pudong airport, can hold six planes at a time.

But, despite the ambitious goal, the first major parts have yet to arrive, AFP journalists saw on an exclusive tour of the new production facility – the first for foreign media.

The plane’s builders, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), said they recognised the issues, but they had the full financial and political backing of the Communist government and believed they would ultimately be successful.

Total spending on the project is unknown.

Although China claims the C919 is self-developed and manufactured, foreign companies are playing key roles in the project by supplying systems as well as newly developed engines made by French-American venture CFM International.

The narrow-body plane, with a range of up to 5 555km, can seat a maximum of 174 passengers, according to Comac.

Comac already claims 400 orders for the C919, most from domestic leasing companies and only one from a foreign customer, GE Capital Aviation Services – a subsidiary of General Electric, the US firm that co-owns engine provider CFM.

Airlines remain reluctant to order the C919 while it has not been certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration, which would enable it to fly in US skies. – Sapa-AFP