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TOKYO, April 23 (Reuters) - Honda Motor Co on Thursday flew its HondaJet business aircraft for the first time in Japan, bringing to life a dream cherished by legendary founder Soichiro Honda, but the automaker said sales of the jet in Asia remain years away.
The HondaJet, built and tested in the United States, is expected to receive final type certification from the Federal Aviation Administration in the next few months, some 70 years after Soichiro Honda first dreamed of making aircraft. That would pave the way for deliveries of the $4.5 million jet to U.S. and European customers, launching Honda's aviation business in earnest.
Speaking at an event to mark the aircraft's first appearance outside the United States, Michimasa Fujino, Chief Executive of North Carolina-based Honda Aircraft Co, said the fuel-efficient, lightweight HondaJet likely won't be sold in Asia for at least another five years. Honda has received more than 100 orders for the plane since Honda Aircraft was established in 2006.
Asia's market for business jets is still small compared with North America, Europe and South America, Fujino said. "But I expect the business jet market in Asia to overtake that of South America around 2020," the executive said at a news conference as the HondaJet embarks on a six-week tour across Japan and Europe.
"I think there will be many uses for a fuel-efficient aircraft around that time frame," Fujino said, speaking to hundreds of journalists gathered in a hangar at Tokyo's Haneda Airport to watch a red-and-white HondaJet touch down in the capital.
Fujino said the initial design of the jet was inspired by a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo shoes he once saw in Hawaii. According to Honda, the aircraft is the fastest and most fuel-efficient in its class, dominated by Textron Inc's Cessna and Brazil's Embraer SA planes.
Its most striking feature is the placement of its two engines over, rather than under, the wings, allowing for more space in the cabin and less noise.
Asked whether more models would follow, Fujino declined to commit, but said he hoped HondaJet wouldn't be a one-off.
"It's difficult for me to say with my boss sitting next to me," Fujino said, seated beside Honda CEO Takanobu Ito. "But since we've begun in the aircraft business, my feeling is I want to make it happen."
Fujino noted that a second aircraft could be developed at roughly 30 to 50 percent of the HondaJet investment cost, given that initial research and development could be utilised again. Honda hasn't disclosed how much it has invested in the aircraft.
"If development costs are low and you can get a higher price (for the product), the gross margin is going to be a lot better," he said.
Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell