“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.
“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.”