Private airplanes are catching on in China, but niggling problems are
stunting the industry's growth.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) issued the first private
airplane license in 1998. In 2001, 50 licenses were issued. The figure soared to
200 in 2005.
According to the Beijing-based Legal Daily, by April 19 this year, CAAC
issued 1,371 licenses for flying small aircraft, including hot-air balloons.
But despite the tremendous amount of enthusiasm, the number of airplanes
owned by individuals in China remains small, "only 70", according to a People's
There are many reasons why. Take the case of China Central Television (CCTV).
It bought a helicopter for reporting purposes in 2002, but it's hardly used.
An engineer with China Aviation Industry Corporation II (AVIC II) said the
helicopter is now cooling its heels in Tianjin as Beijing doesn't even have a
civil aviation airport with landing facilities for helicopters. Not to mention
the tedious procedure CCTV would have to follow even if it did.
Industry insiders like Deng Yanmin, who developed the MF series of light
airplanes, believe the current airspace control policy is a major hindrance to
the growth of the small aircraft manufacturing industry.
Liu Tiemin, general manager of a company selling small planes in Shenyang,
capital of Northeast China's Liaoning Province, said the company is flooded with
phone calls every day. Everybody seems keen to know more about small planes, but
most, says Liu, will give up the idea of buying when they get to know just how
difficult it is to apply for permission to use the airspace.
By law, individuals must apply to the local air traffic control bureau before
flying. The bureau forwards the application to the military for permission.
Private airplane owners can apply for the right to use a designated temporary
airspace for a maximum of one year. Those flying on fixed routes only need to
apply to the bureau one day in advance, but those wanting to fly on improvised
routes need to apply three days before flying.
"If a flight crosses two regions, you have to apply to two air traffic
control bureaus. It's too much of a trouble," said Liang Jinying, general
manager of Beijing Yanqi Lake Aviation Club.
Many small plane owners simply dodge the tedious process. A sales manager who
declined to give his name said many people just avoid the entire process and fly
in the suburbs where there are no military bases because it's difficult to
detect them there.
A small plane now costs between 1 million ($129,500) and 10 million yuan in
China, and there are at least 300,000 Chinese with assets of over 10 million
yuan. Eager as people are to own private planes, there's clearly a huge market
for small planes just waiting to be tapped.
The AVIC II engineer said the small plane manufacturing industry could reach
new heights if the airspace control were eased, easily selling 2,000 to 3,000
planes a year.
CAAC said it has been calling for the opening up of low-altitude airspace for
years. But finally there is a glimmer of hope.
In mid-April, CAAC chief pilot Yu Zhenfa said the civil aviation authority
has mapped out a reform plan, which will divide low-altitude airspace into three
types. According to this plan, different airspaces will involve different
processes of application.
The application process for using airspace lower than 600 meters is currently
being simplified in a city in Northeast China and another city in South China's
CAAC has also set 2010 as the target year by which it will categorize
airspace, and is now experimenting with a new technology called ADS-B, which it
says will facilitate the development of private aviation.