China may open skies to private flyers around 2010
China is likely to open "most or even all of its low-altitude airspace" around 2010, according to a top official at one of the country's leading helicopter manufacturers.
Speaking in Beijing on Friday, Zhang Hongbiao, president of China Aviation Industry Corp II (AVIC II), said China's huge potential demand for helicopters and light planes, which lies both with government agencies and the growing billionaires' club, would become a reality in the next five years when the country will probably lift its long-standing restriction on the use of airspace below 3,000 metres.
However, the Air Traffic Control Committee (ATCC) of the Central Military Commission declined to comment on Zhang's statement.
The strict control of low-altitude airspace has long been regarded as a bottleneck in the country's aviation development, which is predicted to witness explosive growth in the next decade.
"China's monitoring equipment for low-altitude air traffic management has now reached the average level of those of developed countries," Zhang said. "So, opening low-altitude airspace to the public is feasible for China."
He said the ATCC has been considering relaxing restrictions for some time.
China's huge potential market for helicopters, which could be used for law enforcement, medical aid, news reporting and other businesses, has already lured the world's leading manufacturers to take action even before the airspace opens up.
Italian helicopter maker Agusta set up a 40-60 joint venture with Jiangxi-based Changhe Aircraft Industries Group, a subsidiary of State-owned AVIC II, earlier this week.
With an annual production capability of 40 aircraft, the joint venture, the first of its kind in China, will at first produce six units annually and then 20 units a year in the near future, company President Wang Bin said.
Wang said the new company would mainly produce Agusta's A109E Power model, an eight-seat light helicopter with twin engines.
Wang said the first China-made A109E, named the CA109 in China, will roll off the production line by next June. It will be China's first self-made double-engine light helicopter.
"Several domestic clients have showed great interest in the CA109, and we are having talks with them," Wang said, adding that the major market for the CA109 will be within China, with demand from government agencies, businesses and the military.
Renzo Lunardi, deputy director of the Anglo-Italian Agusta Westland group, said the A109E Power retails at around US$4 million. So far, 600 units have been sold worldwide.
Lunardi said the CA109, weighing 3 tons with a cruising speed of 285 kilometres per hour, would initially be assembled from imported kits, but it was hoped to later source components from China.
Insiders say China's demand for helicopters is expected to peak in the coming decade with potential orders likely to amount to 1,800 units.
Statistics from the General Administration of the Civil Aviation of China (CAAC) show that more than 270 Chinese have qualified to fly helicopters and light planes since the CAAC allowed the issuing of private licences in August 1996.
(China Daily 09/24/2005 page1)