The People's Liberation Bizjet
In China, another revolution is about to begin.
- By William Triplett
- Air & Space magazine, November 2001
(Page 3 of 6)
The air traffic system itself has discouraged private ownership. In the People’s Republic of China, almost all airspace is owned and tightly controlled by the People’s Liberation Army. Civil aircraft may fly only along dedicated routes, typically about 25 miles wide at approved altitudes. But of the 1,122 such routes, which are shared by airliners, a few charter services, foreign-owned business craft, and the military, only 29 are currently controlled by the CAAC. The rest are administered by the PLA.
According to several Westerners representing U.S. aviation interests in China, the CAAC is full of “forward-thinking people,” as one sales rep puts it, who strongly support developing general aviation in China. The CAAC is slowly winning over governmental support, but the PLA is yielding airspace only gradually.
Under these circumstances, there has been little need to create procedures whereby individuals could purchase aircraft. When the Zhang brothers came to Zhu Hai for the first China Airshow, in 1996, the laws stated (as they still do) that only China’s airlines, their affiliates, and the government could buy and import aircraft. But Cessna had a Citation on display, and the Zhangs liked what they saw. The following year Yue visited the Cessna factory in Wichita. He also dropped in on the folks at Gulfstream (comparison shopping knows no borders). The Citation was cheaper, and he felt Cessna’s factory was slightly better managed. He went with the Citation 525.
According to someone familiar with the transaction, the Zhangs, with help from a Hong Kong aviation company but mostly through sheer entrepreneurial will, got China Southern Airlines to act as sponsor of the 525 and essentially secured all necessary approvals after the fact. That’s the kind of clout you can wield in China if, like Broad Air Conditioning, you’re a fully private, debt-free, domestic company employing 1,400 people and bringing in about $240 million a year in sales. “The Zhangs have a great deal of influence,” says the source, who asked for anonymity.
What they and other Chinese citizens don’t have, because of existing regulations, is the right to operate jets as private individuals. So the brothers hired two pilots and an engineer from a domestic aviation “academy,” as it’s called—essentially a group of airline pilots who fly charters and are overseen by the CAAC. The Zhangs’ pilots wear Broad Air Conditioning uniforms, but Broad pays the academy for their services, and the academy in turn pays the pilots. “It’s the politically expedient way,” says Rod Davis, who also delivered the Zhangs’ 525.
The Changsha airport is a modern monstrosity of concrete, glass, and cinder block, but on one of its flanks stands a relatively new, small hangar surrounded by an almost pristine ramp—the parking lot for Broad Air Conditioning’s burgeoning little air force. There’s another Cessna Citation—the 525, Broad’s first jet, bought in 1997 and up for sale now that the Zhangs have traded up to the Excel. Three Cessna 172s are parked next to it. Older brother Yue wants to use the 172s to start a flying club. Zhang Yue, in fact, is crazy about flying. He was trained by CAAC instructors to fly the company’s other aircraft—a Bell 206B helicopter—but Broad has since moved up to a twin-engine Bell 427.
“The efficiency of work has improved as a result of having the jet,” says Yue. He adds that he can’t put an exact figure on how much sales have increased, but the rise in revenues is the principal reason that he and his brother decided to move up to the Excel, which has a longer range than the 525. And he does venture an estimate of how much the Excel will boost sales—by $50 million—suggesting that he and his brother have already targeted some new clients.
Changsha airport and its downtown environs recede quickly from view when you get on one of the highways that lead into the rural areas, where there seems to be an unending strip of dilapidated buildings and dusty, dented cars that don’t look parked so much as abandoned. Families live in these buildings, mostly low-rises resembling storage containers, and children and unleashed dogs run in and out of them. In part but maybe not entirely because of overcast autumn skies, everything has a gray pallor to it, including the grass. Turn in to Broad Town, headquarters of Broad Air Conditioning, and the scenery changes dramatically. The campus—verdant, elegant—stretches out almost like a golf course, and might well be one were it not for the helipad and multiple commercial buildings, constructed of pale brick and reflecting windows. Everything takes place here, from manufacturing the air conditioning units to computer-monitoring them after installation around the world. Employees live on campus in company-provided apartments. There’s a cafeteria-cum-entertainment building (designed with a nautical theme) and a recently built science museum, which the Zhangs designed in the shape of a pyramid. Under construction is Broad’s own management school, which looks a little like a Beaux Arts mansion.