The People's Liberation Bizjet
In China, another revolution is about to begin.
- By William Triplett
- Air & Space magazine, November 2001
(Page 4 of 6)
In a lobby on the second floor of the main building sits a large landscape model of Broad Town: The only feature not yet realized is a runway and hangar on one of the campus edges.
A long corridor leads off the lobby and down to Zhang Yue’s office. The office décor is more functional than stylish: a big black desk, two big black metal cabinets behind it, and white walls. Arrayed across the top of the cabinets are models of jets, including a Citation Excel. On a Wednesday evening in November, Zhang is seated at his desk, sipping green tea, smoking a cigarette, and musing about the future of general aviation in his country as young assistants periodically enter with documents for him to sign.
“China’s economy is developing fast and the usage of business aircraft is developing too,” he says with a grin. “But,” he adds, losing the grin, “the usage is not developing as fast as we would like.
“We will be meeting with government officials about getting more airspace,” he says. “But it will take a long time to change their minds.” It has taken the government the better part of 20 years to get to its current point. For example, filing and receiving approval of a flight plan used to involve days. “Procedures,” Yue says with a sigh. “So many of them.” Now it’s maybe one day’s wait, he says, and less in an emergency.
For Chinese-registered general aviation craft, that is. Foreign-registered bizjets must file requests for flight plan approval at least two weeks in advance, and if approval is granted, operators must strictly follow the original request. No deviations are allowed, not on routes, destinations, or even passenger lists. “This is a tremendous obstacle to a lot of potential foreign investors” who have bizjets, says a sales rep. “If they fly into China to visit one of their factories in Beijing, then realize they need to go to another in Shanghai, well, if it wasn’t part of the original flight plan, they can’t do it.”
At a December 1999 meeting of the CAAC, the FAA, and other organizations working to modernize air traffic management in China, CAAC representatives announced a shift in policy. In the past, military missions had taken priority over civil aviation, so scheduled airline flights were at the mercy of the military’s schedule. The new policy for coordinating the demands of military and civil aviation gives priority to civil aviation and includes a commitment to meet “the requirements of other flight activities, such as general aviation and sport flights.” One of the first steps the CAAC took toward that commitment was to make official the procedure invented by the Zhangs for individuals to purchase aircraft.
What the manufacturers of business aircraft would like to know is: How many businessmen like the Zhangs are out there?
China has relatively few rich people. Most of the country’s private wealth is concentrated in the eastern provinces—where the economic reforms have been most extensively implemented. According to a recently released list from the government in Beijing, there are at least two billionaires—that’s in U.S. dollars—and a few dozen millionaires. There is also a small but growing middle class, and Chinese policymakers are trying to encourage that growth. “The Chinese are starting to understand that if you want to develop a big, prosperous middle class, you need lots of small- to mid-size companies,” says Gwen Lyle, who works for the U.S. Department of Commerce office in China. “Those companies are the great engine of America.” That’s an engine China definitely wants to reverse-engineer. Such a system of production would relieve the government of the costs to employ workers and maintain infrastructure in state-run enterprises that have been losing money. What has worked in the United States, however, doesn’t always transfer to China.