China’s Aviation Industry

Christopher Jackson has written this guest post. Chris co-owns and runs Jackson Rosenberg, a boutique China aviation consultancy that provides consultancy and advisory services on China aviation matters. Before that, Chris worked at AVIC, China’s state owned aviation conglomerate. Chris is fluent in Mandarin and he currently lives in Beijing.

I asked Chris to write this post because my law firm represents a number of companies in the international aviation business (mostly involving Eastern Europe) and pretty much all of them are interested in China. During my last trip to China, I had the opportunity to speak with Chris and with one of Chris’s aviation clients (at a well-known airplane manufacturer) about aviation in China and I was riveted. One of the things I learned is that the Chinese aviation authorities virtually always err on the side of safety as opposed to the side of moving more passengers quickly. I view aviation as one of China’s great opportunities and I have been bugging Chris for months to write a guest post for us and here we have it:

By: Christoper Jackson

Almost exactly five years ago, for reasons unknown at the time, Shanghai’s Pudong Airport was unexpectedly shut down, with all flights in and out cancelled. Many airport staffers were quoted as explaining that “Air Force exercises” were responsible for the sudden closure. As events unfolded over the next few days, it became clear that the Central Military Commission had ordered the shutting down of one of China’s busiest international airports, with no prior notice. An airport staffer confirmed this, when he stated that the shutdown “was not because of the weather.” Though the airspace was quickly re-opened, many questions still remained.

Airspace in China is heavily regulated and controlled, and the PLA Air Force is vested with the ultimate authority over it. This is, of course, vastly different from the system in Western countries, where civil aviation authorities set guidelines and manage airspace operations. Typically in the West, these civil authorities operate autonomously from the military, and instead, work closely with the aviation industry to promote best practices for use of airspace and relevant procedures.

Imagine if in the United States the US Air Force decided to close Los Angeles’ LAX airport for an afternoon, without any explanation or apparent reason. Imagine being shrugged at by airport ground staff, and told that “military exercises” had caused your flight to be cancelled.

This sort of thing has long been accepted as standard operating procedure in China.

Moving forward five years into 2011, right now marks the first time that real movement and energy has been directed towards changing China’s airspace status quo. China is slowly opening up its airspace to civil management and increasing the freedom of commercial planes to operate.  A new structure for reorganizing airspace was outlined in the Chinese government’s 2010 report, “Opinions of the State Council and the Central Military Commission on Deepening the Reform of China’s Low-altitude Airspace Management,” which was approved and integrated into the 12th Five Year Plan.  This document sets out new regulations, as explained in a recent article by the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA):

Current Chinese airspace plans call for a tri-part classification of low-altitude airspace, from the surface to 3,280 feet (1,000 meters). 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 (4,000 meters) 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.

China is initiating these new deregulations via “test programs” in select cities, starting with Hainan and Guangzhou. Additional programs are planned to take place in 2012, with locations including Chengdu, Lanzhou, Shenyang, Jinan, and Nanjing, and eventual implementation of nationwide airspace management reform by the end of 2015.

Currently, China’s airspace management is a two-tiered system. Each regional authority of the General Administration of Civil Aviation (CAAC) must approve civilian flights but those flights also require a concurrent approval by the military before the CAAC issues flight plan approvals. Take the example of a Cessna 172 being flown from Beijing to Zhuhai for a display at last year’s 2010 Zhuhai Airshow. Approvals for the flight came from over two-dozen different bureaus, both civilian and military, which had to individually sign off and issue the permits.

This is why flight plan approvals take substantially longer in China than any other country of which I am aware.

China has some of the highest airport landing fees in the world and for big commercial airplanes they can easily exceed tens of thousands of dollars. There are those who think the PLA Air Force’s shutdown of Pudong was its way of showing why it is entitled to its “fair” share. Others believe that the Air Force already has plenty of cash, but is just interested in maintaining power and influence. Either way, it is no coincidence that the cities selected to test the new regulations all host a PLA Military Regional Headquarters.

Despite the military-civilian battle for China’s airspace (and all that comes with it), most of us involved with China’s aviation industry see tremendous growth potential. The expectation is that success with the current reforms will lead to further, more meaningful reforms in the 13th Five Year Plan for 2016 to 2020. In the short term, most of the benefits from the currently planned reforms will be seen in the helicopter sector, which China has expressed an interest in developing. Just recently, China’s first medevac helicopter service was started in Beijing, and it is providing time-critical emergency services in the city. Helicopters are expected to account for most of the future operations under the 3,280-foot threshold, and with no need for flight plan filing or approval, helicopters will eventually (probably by December 2015) be able to operate freely throughout the country. Helicopter owners have already been skirting around the current set of rules, by not filing flight plans and by not waiting for approvals. These flights, dubbed “Hei Fei,” or black flights, have become increasingly common, both because helicopter owners have little choice if they want to make reasonable use of their helicopters and because the fines for such flights are roughly the same as the fees that would have been incurred had everything been done properly.

The mid-tier airspace sector, from 3,280 feet to 13,123 feet, will also offer opportunities to smaller general aviation operations, primarily propeller aircraft. Most propeller aircraft operate within this threshold and the opening up of airspace for these planes will boost the pilot training and “enthusiast” sector, as well as utility aircraft, which tend to operate mostly in rural areas where they are mostly used for agricultural, industry or recreational use.

The sector above 13,123 feet, which is the airspace designated for commercial flights and the flight levels where business jets operate at, will remain under the same regulations as before.

Read More

China Business