The inscrutable future of GA in China

March 27, 2012

There is great enthusiasm about the prospects for general aviation in China.

Recently manufacturers have come from all over the world to display their wares at numerous well-attended trade shows and conferences, encouraged by the fact that China has declared in its latest five-year plan that it intends to encourage consumption in China including personal boating and flying. And China has backed up the five-year plan with action. The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), which is mostly government owned, and its subsidiaries have bought Cirrus Aircraft, Continental Engines, and Epic Aircraft. One subsidiary of AVIC, China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co. Ltd. (CAIGA), has a factory the size of Cessna’s facility in Independence, Kan., sitting empty in Zhuhai and ready to build airplanes.

Does all this mean that there will be GA airplanes crisscrossing China soon? Well, that depends. My wife and business partner Martha and I went to China to find out. We learned that to fully understand the prospects for GA in China, you need to consider how aviation developed in China as compared to the United States. In China, a historically airline-centric airspace system presents regulatory challenges to GA growth, but passionate and entrepreneurial individuals may be up for the challenge.

In the United States, aviation began and first prospered as GA. The Wright brothers were the first GA pilots, and it wasn’t until after Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in a GA airplane that airline flying began to catch on in a big way. In 1939 AOPA was formed to preserve GA in the face of a big military and airline build-up as the country confronted the prospect of global war. While restrictions were gradually added to make airline flying safe and practical, AOPA’s vigilance ensured that GA’s interests were well represented as changes took place.

China, on the other hand, started with airline flying. As their aviation system grew, it was designed solely to accommodate airline operation. Today they have a vibrant, robust airline system and, except for airplanes used to train airline pilots, virtually no piston GA.

Since it was created only with efficient and safe airline travel in mind, the system will clearly have to be adjusted to accommodate GA. For example, in China pilots cannot leave a defined local area without permission. The dimensions of this “birdcage” vary, but usually it is a radius of 8 kilometers (5 statute miles) up to an altitude of 300 meters to 1,000 meters (984 feet to 3,281 feet) depending on local circumstances.

To leave the “birdcage” and fly between airports pilots must have specific permission, arranged with considerable notice and a very significant fee. When permission is granted, the trip must be flown on a defined, pre-approved route. During the flight, communications with ATC is required at all times. (Flight schools can obtain pre-authorization to fly defined routes between specific airports which can be activated with about an hour’s notice.)

The dimensions of the available airspace around airports, and the circumstances of the pre-approved routes between airports, are determined by negotiations with the air force. These negotiations are very much based on personal relationships with individuals in the air force.

In order to operate any aircraft in China, say a Cessna 172, the operator (even a private operator) must have an operating certificate in the same way a Part 135 operator in the United States must have one, including an operations manual, operating specifications, a maintenance program, and more. This requirement makes it impractical if not impossible for an individual to operate an aircraft on his own.

In China there is little infrastructure to support GA. Only one refinery in the country produces avgas, making it very hard to get and expensive. Avgas is priced per ton, and at 25,000 Renminbi (RMB) per ton, it works out to about $11 per gallon. There are few, if any, FBOs, and maintenance and parts availability for piston aircraft is a big problem.

Small piston and small turboprop GA aircraft are severely restricted from mixing with larger aircraft at the main airports. ATC is highly risk-averse and has no desire or incentive to disrupt the flow of commercial airline traffic to accommodate slower aircraft. Plus, they are lacking the skills and experience necessary to do so.

While many obstacles will have to be overcome before piston airplanes will be able to be used for personal transportation the way they are in the United States, the prospects for flying private jets in China are far more favorable. Since business jets essentially fly the same profile and routes as the airlines, they fit into the existing ATC system quite easily. Jet operators are more able to afford the overhead of arranging the required airspace permission and paying the fees, and the requirement for an operating certificate represents much less of an obstacle. Finally, jet fuel is reasonably priced and widely available, and there is an international infrastructure in place to provide jet service and maintenance.

So back to our original question, what are the prospects for piston GA in China? That depends on China’s response to the obstacles. The government has given indications that there will be a loosening of the airspace restrictions in limited areas soon. And since many issues in China can be influenced by personal relationships, many companies with an interest in GA believe they can sway the government to accelerate the airspace reform.

It is important to remember that unlike in a democracy, China can make sweeping changes with stunning rapidity. But even so, it is hard to imagine the military loosening the airspace significantly at a time when governments worldwide—including ours—are increasingly concerned about GA as a threat to national security. Even if the airspace is opened dramatically, the problems of the requirement for an operator’s certificate for even the simplest airplane, and the lack of infrastructure to support piston airplanes, remain. All of this doesn’t necessarily mean the complete lack of prospects for piston GA in China. It just means that the future of piston GA will look different than it does in the United States.

China’s robust economy, though not like ours, may help shape the future of GA in the country. You might call it highly directed free enterprise, but there are 1.3 billion people who feel increasingly enabled to follow their dreams. Among these people, many are very eager to follow their dream of flying, which up until now has been virtually denied them. On our trip to China we met several successful entrepreneurs eager to set up aviation businesses even though the prospects for any kind of reasonable return soon are remote. Like many in the United States, they see this as a way to pursue their passion for aviation.

Like all good entrepreneurs they will create their business models to reflect their environment. Part of their strategy may well be to provide the operating certificate to allow owners to fly their airplanes. Their businesses will most likely take the form of a flying club with a strong social component. The Chinese are crazy about clubs, and being a VIP member of a club. Many golf and social clubs now offer “VVIP” memberships (since “VIP” is not exclusive enough). Until use of piston aircraft as personal transportation becomes practical, flying clubs may begin as a way to provide wealthy Chinese with a means to experience flying and have one more club to join after their golf and yacht clubs.

It will be a long time, if ever, before piston GA in China looks like it does in the United States. But given the powerful desire of humans to fly and the indomitable entrepreneurial spirit we saw there, you can bet there will be some form of personal flying in China soon.

John King co-owns King Schools with his wife Martha. The two have specialized in flight training for more than 36 years. According to King Schools, “John and Martha are the first couple to both hold every category and class of FAA rating on their pilot and instructor certificates.”