Big Hopes For Small Aircraft In China

Sept. 30, 2014
General aviation starts to attract attention as an enabler of economic growth.

In 1935, Li Xiaqing became China’s first qualified Chinese pilot, graduating from the prestigious Boeing School of Aeronautics. She had been inspired by her experience at the Paris Airshow, but had to fight a long battle when she returned to China with her U.S. credentials to earn her Chinese pilot’s license. Those engaged in China’s general aviation industry might feel they share Li’s frustration when they look at the current situation here, but they are nevertheless seeing progress and remain optimistic about the future.

General aviation, which is a catch-all phrase referring to everything that isn’t commercial airlines, freight or military, is still very much in its nascent stages in China, and a cautious attitude within the government means the sector will remain tiny compared to countries such as the US for some time to come. Getting reliable historical data about the Chinese general aviation industry is difficult, but according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, there were around 3,400 general aviation aircraft by the end of last year, compared with around 220,000 in the US. In fact, the US had more general aviation aircraft in 1929, shortly after Charles Lindbergh made his historic trans-Atlantic flight, than China does today. But from a low base, there is ample room for growth, with the number of business jets, for example, growing 40 percent in 2012 from the year before. 


Private aircraft operated by individuals and corporate flight departments, chartered on-demand commercial operations, air tourism, civil helicopter aerial work, and disaster relief and medical emergency transportation all fall into the category of general aviation. Because of the broad definition, companies in the sector cater to a wide range of customers with various business models and requirements. For example, Gulfstream, the No. 1 supplier of business jets to China, supplies the majority of its aircraft to companies for corporate use or leasing, with the remainder going to individuals. Users of these jets are seeking flexibility and range when realizing Gulfstream’s concept of “office in the sky.”

The biggest customer for Cessna, on the other hand, is the nation’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), for use in flight training, testing or mapping. And of the roughly 300 helicopters in China, most are used for activities such as patrolling power lines and providing emergency services.

One activity not allowed under the current Chinese regulations, and one of the most popular in the United States, is flying for fun. But given the restrictions overshadowing general aviation as a whole, the problems facing recreational fliers seem insignificant.  

Pretty much everyone involved in general aviation agrees that the No. 1 bottleneck restricting growth is the limited amount of available airspace. The military controls the skies, and allows civil aviation to use around 20 percent of it. The result is that all aircraft, large and small, need to stick to tight corridors that crisscross the country between airports. The impact on punctuality for commercial airlines in China is well-known, but for general aviation the harm is even greater, as private aircraft are often at the back of the queue when it comes to take-off slots. Moreover, general aviation suffers from particularly tight control over airspace below 1,000 meters, which is where helicopters and smaller planes tend to operate.

“If they could open the airspace, that would do more than anything else to open up the industry,” said Edward Smith, senior vice president, International & Environmental Affairs for GAMA. “That’s not going to happen quickly.”

Smith says that a close second behind airspace restrictions is the regulatory system, which often treats general aviation in the same way as commercial aviation. It is virtually impossible for an individual to operate their own aircraft, forcing them to use operator companies for whom complying with the certification regulations makes sense only because of the size of their operations. For example, in many countries, mechanics for general aviation aircraft need only a general license not tied to specific types of aircraft. In China, however, the rules for general aviation and commercial airlines are the same: mechanics need to be certified for each specific type of plane they will be working on. The result is high operating costs.

“China is one of the most expensive places in the world to operate a general aviation aircraft,” Chris Jackson, director of project development at Genesis Aviation Development. “A friend of mine in the U.S. was amazed when I told him that a flight that cost him around $12,000 would cost the equivalent of $60,000 in China. It costs $10,000 just to fly into a major airport in China.”

And that’s if you can find a suitable airport to land at in the first place. The lack of infrastructure suitable of general aviation is the kind of chicken-and-egg problem that many see as a problem only the government can solve. According to the CAAC, China had 286 airports and landing in 2011, compared with 15,000 in the US. The airports that do exist often don’t have the kind of small-scale facilities that general aviation needs, such as suitable fuel, maintenance and parking facilities. There is a lack of charts suitable for low-flying aircraft, or even certification specific to operating them.

Finally, actually buying the aircraft can be difficult, a problem that Gulfstream Asia Pacific President Leda Chong is acutely aware of. “The purchasing process is quite lengthy compared to the U.S., with import approval and validation taking up to a year to complete,” Chong said. There are also significant import taxes and a valued added tax rate much higher than that for commercial aircraft. “But overall it’s an evolving process—10 years ago it might have been impossible to even buy a jet.”

For those used to the US system of general aviation management, the situation in China can seem counter-productive, yet they also acknowledge the unique challenges.

While general aviation in the United States has to a large degree supported the development of the commercial aviation industry, in China, the priority has been to develop commercial aviation as an enabler for economic development. Even so, Smith believes China has been missing a trick in failing to develop a general aviation sector. He believes general aviation can be a contributor to economic development in its own right, for example by integrating distant regions. It also complements the development of commercial aviation, for example by encouraging the development of the next generation of aviators.

He also emphasizes the experience in the United States of general aviation meeting the needs of all stakeholders, no matter they are security, safety or commercial.

“Last month we hosted a delegation of Chinese regulators, and we wanted to show them what’s possible,” Smith says. “So we took them to a general aviation airport five miles from Washington Dulles International Airport, which is the area’s major airport. So not only is this pretty busy airspace, but, being near Washington, there are also more security restrictions than other places. But despite all this, it’s still possible to very successfully operate general aviation out of this small airport.” 


And that message of what’s possible seems to be having a noticeable impact. Not only are rules and regulations slowly loosening, but many in the industry praised Chinese regulators for taking an open-minded attitude to the industry, despite the numerous competing interests of China’s internal stakeholders.

“At the start, China said ‘don’t even talk to us about general aviation yet,’” says Paul Fiduccia, director of the sales program management at Cirrus Aircraft Company and co-chair of the General Aviation and Business Aviation Committee in AmCham China’s Aviation Cooperation Program (ACP).  “But in 2007, CAAC came back to the ACP and said that as the situation with airlines was under control, they were now ready to consider general aviation.”

The result was a research project prepared by ACP that addressed basic questions about general aviation, such as the possible economic benefits, the experience of other countries and a possible roadmap for China. This was followed by another report focusing on safety and operations.

Then in the 12th Five-Year Plan, the Chinese government formalized its commitment to develop a substantial general aviation sector capable of making major contributions to economic and social development in China.

It included improvements in airspace and airport access, better general aviation airports, flight service stations for flight planning support, more maintenance services and jet fuel delivery facilities for general, and improved air traffic control procedures. This was followed in July 2012 by the “State Council Opinions on Promoting Civil Aviation Development,” which set several key development targets for the industry. These included a transport growth rate of 12.2 percent for 2011-2020, an improved accident rate, general aviation growth of 19 percent, and increased access to air services for more of the population.

On the ground, more liberal regulators have started to unlock the value of general aviation. Whereas a few years ago it would take a week to get approval for a particular flight, it now takes less than 24 hours. While the same approval may take only a few seconds in the US, this is still a significant improvement in an industry where convenience and flexibility are the key selling points.

There are now also more possibilities for low-altitude aviation, with routes opening up around the country. Since January 2012, airspace below 1,000 meters in northeast, central and south China, as well as Tangshan, Qingdao, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Kunming and Xi'an, as well as areas of northeastern, central and southern China, have been experimenting with pilot schemes for the opening up of low-altitude airspace.

One criticism leveled at the Chinese government is that it is overly cautious in its attitude toward aviation overall and general aviation in particular. In the 1990s, China’s commercial airlines had one of the worst safety records in the world as it tried to play catch-up in the industry. It almost lost the right to fly to the United States, and in fact the ACP was created in part to help the country develop the inspection and oversight infrastructure needed to operate world-standard airlines. Chinese airlines are now among the safest in the world, but the cost has been in terms of lost economic and social benefits, as well as a blame culture that discourages any rebalancing among these objectives.

Nevertheless, industry observers such as Fiduccia are understanding of the government’s attitude.

“How cautious is too cautious?” he says. “The culture in the United States is that an individual can make choices and government doesn’t protect you from everything. The FAA has over 100 years of experience in making thousands of regulatory choices in striking a balance between safety versus economics and social benefits, and it is most toward the economics side. When FAA comes up with a rule, they need to come up with an economic impact analysis.

“In China, however, it’s a very young industry, with pilots and air traffic controllers lacking experience. So this is the correct way to do it because everyone’s green. As pilots, mechanics and controllers get more experience, the balance should shift more to economic and social benefits.” 

Nevertheless, the opportunities are expanding as the country develops and the airspace slowly opens to more traffic. The focus for the moment is on education and capacity building, particularly in training people to comply with the tight regulations on pilots and mechanics.

Bell Helicopter, for example, has signed an agreement to help establish a maintenance training facility in Guangdong Province. “We are also setting up two other training facilities in China authorized by Bell. They will grow next generation of pilots and mechanics,” says Jackie Chen, vice president, business development & government relations for Textron China, the parent company of Bell Helicopter.

Gulfstream is also building out its support services in China to make buying its aircraft easier for customers. Last year it opened a service center at Beijing Capital International Airport equipped with ground support equipment and tooling. In Hong Kong the company has also recruited 15 technical staff fluent in English and several Chinese dialects specifically to service the Chinese market.

So far the long-term investment seems to be paying off for Gulfstream, with the “demand signals remaining healthy,” says Chong. There is now a waiting list of 200 to pick up its recently released G650 business jet, with buyers now not getting delivery until 2017.

Nevertheless, much remains to be done, and in 2012, the ACP developed a series of recommendations that included many of the old problems, including airspace access, flight information services and better provision for general aviation airports. The overarching message is that given the right infrastructure, general aviation can really take off on its own.

As Smith of GAMA puts it, “Part of our mantra for the general aviation industry is that, by allowing it to develop it freely, it will sustain itself. People will be drawn to it, and move up from smaller planes to bigger ones.”

This article was first published in Business Now, the magazine of the American Chamber of Commerce in China (

About the author: Graham Norris is the communications director at AmCham China.

About the Author

Graham Norris