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Let GA aircrafts fly

China used to enjoy a status as the world’s “bicycle kingdom”. Over the last decade however, two-wheeled bikes have been all but replaced by four-wheeled automobiles. More and more Chinese cities are confronted with growing traffic problems. Some people are turning to private airplanes for a solution.

On July 7, 2010, an eyewitness report of an unidentified flying object (UFO) resulted in the shutdown of an airport in east China’s Xiaoshan city. The Hangzhou International Airport resumed flights an hour later.

An investigation conducted shortly thereafter found that the UFO was not from outer space, but a small plane that was flying without government approval.

Aviation is tightly controlled in China by military and civilian authorities. Private flying as a form of general aviation (GA) was unheard of a decade ago. It remains a hobby of a very limited few -- mainly wealthy entrepreneurs and showbiz celebrities. The purchase and use of a private aircraft involves a complex purchasing and government approval system.

Last October, China's state authorities issued an opinion on easing control of the country's low-altitude airspace (LAA). According to the document, airspace less than 1,000 meters above ground should be divided into three zones where free flying is forbidden, monitored or allowed on condition of prior reporting. The move was seen as a long-awaited step in opening up China’s GA sector.

However, according to Liu Gang, deputy director-general of the State Air Traffic Control Commission (SATCC) Office, the country's airspace has never actually been closed to general aviation. "'Loosening control' may be an appropriate wording. Approval and reporting are necessary for the sake of safety," he said.

The scale of China's GA sector is small compared with those of the world’s leading powers. Official statistics show China had 997 registered GA planes by the end of 2009, accounting for 13 percent of China’s total aircrafts. The United States, on the other hand, had 230,000 registered GA aircrafts around the same period.

However, this just means that China has significant room for developing its GA industry. Demand has been on the rise, and the potential market is huge.

A survey conducted in 2007 by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) suggested that the development of GA and related industries could create a market worth more than 1 trillion yuan (about 156 billion U.S. dollars).

There is little dispute that boosting the GA sector will generate multiple benefits. A document released last year by the State Council, the Chinese cabinet, stated that GA, as a form of high-end manufacturing, is one of seven industries that have been strategically prioritized for development.

Relevant government departments are revising regulations for GA products and services, said Jin Junhao, chief of the GA division of the CAAC’s transportation department. “GA reform is in its initial stages,” he said.

However, the changes have not been coming as fast as expected. According to the SATCC’s plan, efforts to divide up China’s LAA into separate portions won’t be finished for another four or five years. Bureaucratic inefficiency has been blamed for the delay, although the magnitude of the task and the government’s hesitancy have also played a factor.

Government authorities have a lot of issues to tackle in opening up the country’s LAA to GA flyers. Aircraft regulations, the construction of airfields, the establishment of maintenance services and training all have to be considered. While the country’s economic development has reached a stage in which creating a thriving GA sector is possible, many domestic industries are not ready for a GA boom.

China does not possess a wide variety of domestic GA aircrafts. The LE-500 light airplane and the Seagull-300 amphibious aircraft, both developed by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, are the most widely-used GA aircrafts. Other GA aircrafts are largely manufactured through joint ventures with foreign companies.

Small- and medium-sized chartered planes are all supplied by foreign firms, with Boeing, Airbus and Gulfstream topping the list. Foreign companies are keeping a close eye on China's GA market; some of them have secured footholds by establishing GA businesses in China. These companies are hoping that Chinese lobbying groups can successfully appeal to the government to hasten the development of the country’s GA industry.

The government is all too aware of what might happen if GA reform is not conducted carefully. There are concerns that the GA sector may end up like China’s automobile industry: dominated by foreign-branded vehicles. However, domestic companies can still benefit from an expanded GA industry by building airfields, training pilots, processing fuel and maintaining the planes.

Officials from the State Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planner, are aware of the impact that the GA sector could have on the economy, as well as the benefits that could be extended to society at large. GA helicopters played a significant role in emergency rescue operations conducted after devastating earthquakes and mudslides occurred in China’s remote mountainous regions several years ago.

The Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association of China is organizing some 30 private pilots to fly their own planes from all corners of the country to an airfield in Beijing. The event, scheduled for late September, is unprecedented in China.

"We are waiting for final approval from the military authority. It would be impossible for such a group activity in the past. The processing is easier this time, " said Ke Yubao, deputy secretary general of AOPA-China.


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