Business / Economy

Regional flights 'indispensable' for nation's healthy development

By Zhao Lei (China Daily) Updated: 2015-11-04 10:19

The rapid development of regional aviation in China will speed fulfillment of the Belt and Road Initiative, but many obstacles still need to be overcome, industry insiders said.

"Connectivity is the very foundation for cross-border trade, tourism and other forms of exchange. Regional aviation is indispensable in the efforts to fulfill the Belt and Road Initiative because of its special advantages over road and rail transport. Its infrastructure requires a shorter construction period and lower investment, it is safer and faster and it has smaller impact on the environment," said Xiao Zhiyuan, vice-president of Aviation Industry Corp of China's economics and technology research arm.

Regional aviation can collect passengers from small cities and transport them to major air hubs for long-distance flights, enabling more people to travel out of their hometowns to see the outside world and know other cultures, thereby improving people-to-people exchanges and mutual understanding.

"These are at the core of the Belt and Road Initiative," Xiao told the audience at the 2015 China Regional Aviation Forum, which opened on Tuesday in Guiyang, Guizhou province.

The Belt and Road development strategy, put forward in 2013, refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt, which will link China with Europe through Central and Western Asia, and to the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which stretches from southern China to Southeast Asia and Africa. The central government has said the ambitious plan will benefit about 4.4 billion people in 65 nations.

The government understands the importance of regional aviation and is paying more attention to its growth, Xiao said.

He noted that in the first seven months of this year, the National Development and Reform Commission, the top economic planner, approved construction plans for seven regional airports that will require a total investment of 6.1 billion yuan ($963 million). In addition, construction has begun on at least six such airports since mid-2014.

Compared with the regional aviation sector in Western nations, however, the industry in China is still in its infancy, as many small cities have yet to be covered. There are only a small number of airports in the country for regional flights, according to Guan Dongyuan, president of Embraer China, the biggest supplier of regional jetliners in the country.

"A lot of local governments and domestic airlines are still fond of large aircraft, so regional aircraft and regional aviation airports were less welcome," he said. "Another factor is that Chinese carriers and their employees are too familiar with the large planes made by Boeing and Airbus, so they prefer using large aircraft when a new route or airport opened."

Consequently, the scale of China's regional aircraft fleet can be described as "tiny", Guan said. There were only 164 regional airliners at the end of 2013, accounting for less than 10 percent of the nation's passenger fleet, far from the global average of 35 percent.

Nearly 60 percent of China's 202 civil airports operate less than four flights each day because of the shortage of regional aircraft, he said.

"As part of the solution, the government should reduce its subsidies to carriers flying large aircraft and shift them to regional airlines to facilitate operations," he said.

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