The People's Liberation Bizjet
In China, another revolution is about to begin.
- By William Triplett
- Air & Space magazine, November 2001
(Page 5 of 6)
“This is the East,” says the FAA’s Elizabeth Keck. “Things are frequently the opposite of what they are in the West.” For one thing, she points out, in the United States individual pilots have flown for pleasure since the airplane was invented, and U.S. regulations from the beginning were concerned with standards for the responsible use of aircraft by individuals. Aviation in China, on the other hand, grew out of a government’s need to improve travel and communication across vast distances. For its entire existence, the CAAC has concentrated on developing China’s airlines; its priority for aviation rules and standards has been to regulate a transportation system used by the masses. That’s why general aviation regulations are only now being drafted.
If bizjet sales truly follow the Zhang model, the purchasers will have not only wealth but at least an interest in flying; presently, in the Chinese population of 1.2 billion, fewer than 50 hold private pilot’s licenses. (In the United States there are almost 620,000 pilots, and a number of organizations who speak to lawmakers on their behalf.) But in spring last year the first flight school for the general public—the Shanghai Eastern Aviation Educational Training Company, Ltd.—opened its doors. The school had one airplane, a Cessna 172. (It now has two 172s and one Beechcraft A-36 Bonanza.) The syllabus consists of 80 hours of ground school and 35 hours of flight training involving dual and solo flight. The price: about $10,000, which members of China’s nascent middle class are willing to pay. For the 50 seats available in the first class, more than 200 people, including 25 women, applied. Another school recently opened in Guangdong, near Zhu Hai. “There is definitely money around here,” says Joe Stewart, a Cessna rep who sells 172s.
Flying clubs for aviation enthusiasts have existed for some time in China, but because the PLA and CAAC have granted only minimal airspace usage, when club members meet, they talk more than fly. In Shanghai, students of the flight school are allowed to fly within a 14-mile radius of the airfield and under 1,000 feet. Nevertheless, the Shanghai and Guangdong flying schools will be graduating licensed private pilots who have every intention of taking to the air, and who, as members of an increasingly important (i.e., prosperous) class, may make their voices heard in Beijing.
But in skies that are truly general-aviation-friendly, there is always some uncontrolled flying going on, and “China’s policy right now is that all flying is under control,” says Keck. “So right away there’s a public policy issue.”
“People in the government need to be convinced that more small aircraft is not necessarily a safety issue in any form,” says Zhang Yue. Ironically, government restrictions may actually be creating a safety issue. Ron Waterman, an FAA Flight Standards Operations Inspector, visited the Shanghai flight school and, while noting the obvious enthusiasm and seriousness of the program, listed in his report “some concerns over the flight training syllabus.” There are no provisions for upper air work, like stall recovery, or for emergency landings. Asked about these gaps, school officials say they just don’t have enough airspace to work in. They say they’ve been talking to the CAAC about getting more—roughly double what they now have—but the request has not yet been decided on.
Gulfstream’s Roger Sperry sees changes ahead: “People here are now beginning to feel okay with the concept of business aviation, meaning they understand that there’s a legitimate role for business aviation in helping the Chinese economy grow.”
China’s western region, for example, accounts for 60 percent of the country and features some of China’s more interesting small cities and areas, which are underserved by the airlines. The potential for tourism, therefore, as well as other business opportunities, remains unexploited. China’s airlines, according to FAA officials in Beijing, would like to help develop the western region mostly through chartered general aviation aircraft. Because of the clearly practical benefits the idea offers, the government has decided to construct some 20 airports throughout the west specifically for general aviation aircraft and helicopters.
But open skies for bizjets? Open doors for buying and importing them? Not yet. The Zhang brothers have certainly shown what’s possible. But the Zhangs are still the exception to the communist rule.