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India revives passenger plane project as China, Japan race ahead

[NEW DELHI] India is reviving a three-decade-old plan to build its first passenger aircraft as the South Asian country struggles to join an exclusive club of Asian nations that have advanced far ahead in creating their own home-made jets.

A 14-seat aircraft, called Saras, is undergoing preliminary tests, Jitendra Jadhav, director of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research at state-controlled National Aerospace Laboratories, said in an interview in Bengaluru on Wednesday. The development of the twin-turboprop plane suffered a setback in 2009 when a test flight ended in a fiery crash, killing all three crew on board.

India may need a few hundred small planes that can carry less than 30 people over the next five to seven years for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to succeed in his plan to boost air links in remote areas of the country, according to Sydney-based CAPA Centre for Aviation. India's air force, which has committed to purchasing 15 of the Saras planes, needs to test the aircraft before certifications and sale to commercial airlines, Mr Jadhav said.

The process of getting full certification could take as long as three years, he said.

Delays in production of new aircraft is common across the world, even with established companies like Boeing Co and Airbus SE. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd announced a fifth delay last month in delivering Japan's first locally made passenger jet to its launch customer, while China's Advanced Regional Jet ARJ21 took 13 years to design, build and bring to market.

India's Saras program was conceived about 29 years ago.  A separate plan to build a bigger, 50-70 seat commercial aircraft is stuck pending government funding, Mr Jadhav said. Feasibility study for the project, which would need a private party to manufacture, has been done and the proposal has been with the government since 2013, Mr Jadhav said.

"The government should sanction funds, only then we can do it," Mr Jadhav said.


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