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Airshow: China sells jetliners, may spur Eastern revival

By Alison Leung and Tim Hepher

ZHUHAI, China (Reuters) - China announced 50 new orders for its new Comac C919 passenger jet at the opening of the country's main air show on Tuesday and looked set to assist in the rebirth of one of the most famous names in aviation -- defunct U.S. carrier Eastern Air Lines.

The dozens of new orders for China's first large commercial passenger jet were seen dominating 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 ambitions.

The latest orders for the 150-seat plane will boost the official total to 380, reaching the state-owned manufacturer's declared breakeven point of 300-400 orders. Western analysts however say it will be some time before the aircraft, due to make its maiden flight in 2014, proves its viability.

The C919 is designed to challenge Airbus and Boeing in the largest segment of the $100 billion annual jetliner market.

Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) said on Tuesday it would sign orders for 20 aircraft each with Joy Air and Hebei Aviation Group, confirming a Reuters report of buying interest from the two Chinese regional carriers.

Its only foreign customer GECAS, a unit of General Electric which co-produces the engines, will buy 10 more, taking its total order for the plane to 20, COMAC said in a statement.

Other potential C919 customers that have already signed tentative agreements also include Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair and British Airways , according to COMAC.

COMAC also confirmed it would sign a provisional agreement with investors representing Eastern Air Lines, which went bankrupt in 1991. There have been sporadic reports of efforts to relaunch the airline, whose forked logo was seen on display as a backdrop to the signing ceremony due later on Tuesday.

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.

The air show -- attended by a record 650 exhibitors -- also featured prototypes of a new Chinese business aircraft and a model of a new stealth fighter China 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.

(Reporting by Alison Leung, Editing by Tim Hepher and Jeremy Laurence)

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