A Great Leap Forward

June 27, 2012
Should our aviation industry be more like China's? Or should China's be more like ours?

More planes are flying with passengers in every seat. Mergers have cut costs. Ticket prices are up. Fuel prices are down. And then there’s all those millions in baggage fees.

These are good, if not at least better, times for the airlines. So it was interesting to hear a radio interview on a recent drive home with Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson who came out in favor of letting the U.S. government adopt a national airline policy.

Not a return to old-fashioned regulation, mind you, but fixes to air traffic, reductions in taxes and, somehow, letting this public policy plan still be nimble enough to let the free market determine the direction of the nation’s airline industry.

In other words, we should be more like China.

Today’s China is a far cry from the Chairman Mao days. But the country never did give up on its five-year economic plans. Right now, the Chinese are on their 12th five-year plan. And part of this plan centers on turning the country into an aviation powerhouse.

For example, the country plans to build 70 airports in three years as well as expand 100 existing airports. Chinese carriers are expected to operate 4,700 planes by 2015.

That’s great news to Boeing and Airbus, but the Chinese don’t want to just be consumers. The plan also includes pouring trillions of dollars into creating its own aerospace industry to build home-grown rivals to Boeing ... and Airbus ... and Gulf Stream ... and Cessna.

Much of this great leap forward is chronicled in a new book, “China Airborne,” by journalist and pilot James Fallows.

Fallows thinks the aviation industry is China’s one-way, first-class ticket out of simply being shameless copy cats and day laborers for the world’s best-known brand names.

“China’s aerospace future is a test case for its economic and technological development as a whole,” he writes. If China can take part in the international business of manufacturing and selling commercial planes and private aircraft, it will signify a real level of maturity for its economy.

It’s important to remember what the Chinese government hasn’t forgotten as it throws everything it’s got into its next big idea. Namely, Boeing is our largest net exporter of all American companies. And the U.S. aerospace sector is the overall leading export sector for our country.

And Fallows says China brings two advantages to its rather late-start to build an industry that took much of the rest the world the past century to develop:

  • Its commercial airline fleet consists of new, fuel-efficient planes.
  • The Chinese are skipping over old-fashioned radar and heading straight to what we refer to as “NextGen” GPS navigation systems as they open up vast expanses of passenger air routes.

Fallows, however, also points out the stifling contradictions of its regressive political genes.

There’s no Chinese FAA, for example, but there is the Chinese military that controls the huge country’s airspace.

Flights out its showcase international airports in Shanghai and Beijing are often delayed for hours for purely military reasons. Going from Point A to Point B within China usually means there’s a Point C or Point D for commercial flights since only military aircraft have access to direct, narrow corridors.

If that wasn’t bad enough, many domestic flights are kept at altitudes of as little as 10,000 feet for security reason, the equivalent of driving down the interstate in first gear.

"The reason this matters is it's a little distillation of the struggle for China in general," Fallows writes. "Almost everything about China's next step up the economic and cultural and technological ladder requires relaxation of some government control, some military control. Question is how that balance will be struck."

In other words, China may have to be more like us.

About the Author

Steve Smith | Editor