February 11, 2011

Test flights now taking place in the People’s Republic of China herald a long-promised loosening of airspace restrictions in that country, a move NBAA is calling “a good step in the right direction” toward greater mobility for general aviation.

The tests, using four helicopters owned by the Shanghai-based Zhengyang Investment Group, are being flown over and near the city of Haikou, capital of the Hainan island province. For now, test flights are limited to 3,280 feet (1,000 meters), but are expected to lead to open airspace as high as 13,123 feet (4,000 meters) throughout the nation within five years. The flight tests, under the direction of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), are expected to continue through March and April.

Until recently, Chinese airspace had been tightly controlled by the military, with permission for any civilian flight difficult and time consuming to obtain. In fact, even ownership of a private aircraft was illegal in China until 2003, when the General Aviation Flight Control Ordinance was issued. In addition, the military often scheduled air drills and weapons tests at short notice, severely disrupting commercial aviation operations and exacerbating the country’s chronic flight delays.

“Virtually all low-altitude airspace in China will eventually be opened,” said Jason Liao, NBAA’s Chief Representative in Asia. “It is a big step forward for all general aviation [GA] interests. 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.”

Liao explained that under China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, from 2011 – 2015, low altitude airspace will be opened gradually throughout China. The lowest airspace tier, from the surface to 3,280 feet, will allow virtually unrestricted commercial and general aviation flights, with no flight plan required. From 3,280 feet to 13,123 feet, a flight plan will be required, but prior government permission will not. Above 13,123 feet, a flight plan and prior government permission would be required.

“It’s a great start,” said Bill Stine, NBAA Director, International Operations. “Although it won’t ease business aviation access to China immediately, these changes do show China’s intent to allow GA to flourish in the years ahead.”

Last year, Shanghai Securities News quoted aviation industry insiders as saying that airspace reform would be “an ice-breaking move” and trigger a golden decade for GA in China. About the same time, Cessna Aircraft parent company Textron estimated that China’s GA market could grow at an annual rate of 20 percent when the reforms were implemented. That growth rate would put GA market value in China at seven billion yuan (about $1 billion) annually by 2015.

In 2007, Cessna announced a partnership with China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation to manufacture the new Cessna 162 SkyCatcher, a light sport aircraft. Other international aviation companies with a presence in China include Eurocopter and Diamond Aircraft. “General aviation improves China’s transportation system, supplementing infrequent airline services in smaller markets and providing services to communities without airline services,” said Kevin Wu, vice-president of Textron China.

China’s booming economy has created nearly 2,000 billionaires who understand the value of business aviation and are buying business aircraft. In an August, 2010 article in Time Magazine, correspondent Chengcheng Jiang reported that many of the newly wealthy Chinese aircraft owners were agitating for more freedom to fly.

“China is recognizing the enormous potential for economic gain with business aviation, and has been opening its airspace a little bit at a time,” said Stine. “It’s come a long, long way since the 1980s, when any business flights were limited to low flight levels and even stranger route structures. It’s very heartening.”