August 15, 2011

More airspace is opening for general aviation (GA) flights in China, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and non-government sources in the country.

“The initial airspace reforms in the flight control areas of Changchun and Guangzhou were completed at the end of 2010,” said Jane Zhang, President of Silk Wings Aviation, a company whose services include consulting firm for GA activity in China.  “Now the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is organizing further work in the flight control areas of Shenyang and Guangzhou, as well as the flight control sub-areas of Chengdu, Lanzhou, Jinan and Nanjing.”

“It is a big step forward for all GA interests,” said Jason Liao, NBAA’s Chief Representative in Asia. “It almost certainly means China will become the second-largest market in the world [after the U.S.] for GA aircraft like helicopters and turboprops.”

Until recently, almost all Chinese airspace had been tightly controlled by the military.  Even private ownership of aircraft was illegal until 2003. In addition, the military often scheduled air drills and weapons tests on short notice, disrupting commercial aviation operations.

However, an official CAAC estimate of investments totaling 1.5 trillion yuan ($230 billion) in the next five years was clear encouragement for officials to begin releasing airspace sooner rather than later. In January and February of this year, the government authorized helicopter test flights near the city of Haikou, capital of the Hainan island province. Although the flights were limited to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), officials at the time said they could lead to opening a portion of airspace as high as 13,123 feet (4,000 meters) throughout the nation.

Current Chinese airspace plans call for a tri-part classification of low-altitude airspace, from the surface to 3,280 feet. The three classifications are referred to as “reporting,” for which no detailed flight plan would be required; “surveillance,” for which a detailed flight plan would be required but prior government permission would not, and “controlling,” for which a detailed flight plan and prior government permission would be required. From 3,280 feet to 13,123 feet within existing airline routes, a flight plan will be required but prior government permission would not. Above 13,123 feet, a flight plan and prior government permission would be required.”

Removing barriers for access to Chinese airspace may be proceeding more quickly than originally planned. A government document titled “Opinions of the State Council and the Central Military Commission on Deepening the Reform of China’s Low-altitude Airspace Management” was released in late 2010 and revealed that the PLA Air Force was designating 13 reporting, four surveillance and 21 controlling aerial zones in the two pilot areas of Changchun and Guangzhou. The two lowest of those areas offer GA about 60% of the total airspace.

“Now they’re organizing further work in flight control areas of Shenyang and Guangzhou and the additional flight control sub-areas of Changchun, Chengdu, Lanzhou, Jinan and Nanjing,” said Zhang. And according to a circular issued jointly by the State Council and Central Military Commission in April, China plans to “thoroughly” open its low-altitude airspace across the country by the 2015 end of the current Five Year plan.

The Shanghai Securities News recently quoted China vice minister Wang Changshun of the CAAC as saying that China also plans to boost its GA industry by subsidizing three to five key enterprises in the GA arena, with preference given to aviation enterprises that produce social benefits such as helicopter rescue flights. Given the opening of airspace and potential Chinese subsidy of GA enterprises, it’s not surprising that the first Air Med and Rescue Congress China 2011 is planned for Shanghai October 11-12, 2012.

Until very recently, China had no aeromedical helicopter rescue system other than the military. “But there’s a huge demand for it,” said Zhang, “Several ministries became keenly interested after the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, especially the Ministry of Civil Affairs. But there are several challenges, including the lack of a viable business model and insurance support, lack of airport/infrastructure, lack of operational knowledge and of course a shortage of pilots.”

Boeing Aircraft put a sharp point on the pilot shortage issue earlier this year, when it released a report titled, “2011 Pilot and Technician Outlook.” It predicted the greatest growth of airline traffic in the Asia-Pacific Region, and specifically said China will need 72,000 pilots and 108,000 technicians by 2030. Zhang said her company is already working closely with several Chinese clients to train pilots.

“GA in China has come a long, long way since the 1980s, when any business flights were limited to low flight levels and even stranger route structures,” said Bill Stine, NBAA Director, International Operations. “It’s very heartening.”