Private Aviation In China: Not So Fast

China has been hailed as the next great market frontier for private general aviation aircraft.  Indeed, during the worldwide recession the country snapped up expensive, high-end business jets at an unprecedented rate, providing a rare glimmer in an otherwise flagging industry.    “Some interpreted this as the beginning of a sales explosion and the time to get in on the action at any cost,” notes aviation market researcher Brian Foley.  “While that didn’t last, a more sustainable market should come but will take more patience.”

The initial sales boom was a bit of an anomaly, a product of sudden, new-found wealth in the region.  Since then the local stock market declined, economic growth moderated and assorted “bubbles” ensued, causing the early private aircraft buying enthusiasm to wear off proportionately.   In addition there are a number of restrictions and inflexibility when operating private aircraft in China which constrain its full sales potential.  Foley illustrates this with an automobile analogy.

“Imagine if there was a 22% tariff on imported cars, drivers had to ask permission to drive 2 days in advance and could only drive to specified cities via a sub-optimal route with few services. Driving to a city not on the approved list would require a “navigator” to ride along.  It’s safe to say you wouldn’t sell many cars, but that’s exactly how the aircraft operational environment is in China today, which isn’t great for selling planes either.”

With development of general aviation a national objective, both the government and private Chinese companies have made a number of aerospace acquisitions and joint ventures in the last couple of years.  “A clear, unified, strategic approach hasn’t really emerged yet, and some deals seemed to have unnecessarily favored the seller.   As familiarity with the segment increases, one would expect to see more systematic, logical, pragmatic and deliberate actions commensurate with building an aviation industry.” 

According to AMSTAT there are just 176 business jets based in mainland China, and another 118 in Hong Kong.  Combined that’s 294 or only 1.5% of the 19,373 business jets in operation worldwide.  While the Chinese fleet is expected to have a phenomenal growth rate, it will be from a very small base.   

Despite its market limitations, over the next decade China will be a nice adjunct to the overall market and account for as many as 900 or 9% of future worldwide business jet deliveries.   This is analogous to the emerging fractional ownership concept back in the 1990’s which provided both an unanticipated and welcome extra boost to sales.  “I view this next decade a period when the market congeals and some of these impediments slowly get addressed.  This could set up the following decade to be truly extraordinary.” 

About Brian Foley Associates (BRiFO)

Since 2006 Brian Foley Associates has served the aviation industry with research, speaking and advisory services. For more information visit