Cars crawl along downtown streets in much of China every weekday, generating angry honks and late arrivals. To ease that of gridlock of some 20 years, Chinese urban metro systems keep expanding, and the capital Beijing restricts the numbers of cars on city roads during peak commute hours.
China’s skies have always kept relatively clear of private jets. Commercial airliners fly so often that the country’s major airports face chronic flight delays. But now private jets–the likes of small Cessna and Gulfstream planes–have a chance to do a lot more flying.
That’s because the Civil Aviation Administration of China is breaking down regulations that once made it hard to develop a private jet industry, in turn helping to stimulate economic growth by letting business people travel quickly to remote places. Just last year officials changed more than 30 rules last year in favor of private fliers and related services, says Jeffrey Lowe, managing director of aircraft services firm Asian Sky Group in Hong Kong.
Breakdown of old rules
Just a few years ago it would take more than a week to get approval for a private jet flight, says Li Xianyong, CEO of Shanghai Easewing Aviation Consultants. It takes 24 hours now. Applications for certificates to do aircraft maintenance and repairs in mainland China would often hit snags before 2016, as well.
“We’re at entry level. It doesn’t even count as the beginner’s stage,” Li says. “Over the past 10 years there’s been some opening up, but it’s still not convenient.”
But the Chinese government is starting to see the link between private aviation and the country’s prized economic growth , people in the industry believe. For that reason, in 2017 the aviation administration relaxed or clarified a series of minor rules on flight paths, repair work and unmanned aircraft. The director general of the administration’s eastern region impressed those changes on industry people at a conference in Shanghai this week.
The government’s moves so far amount to “tinkering at the edges,” says David Dixon, president of the business aircraft seller and Jetcraft Asia.
Chinese aviation officials are also opening up bit by bit access to low-altitude airspace, per this U.S. government report. In 2010 they issued a document calling for “liberalization” of airspace under 4,000 meters with a goal of opening skies below 3,000 meters by 2020, the report says. Those measures favor smaller private aircraft that can’t fly too high. They technically allow the aviation authority to open more air routes as well to a broad category of flights known as general aviation.
Jet operators ready to fill the sky
Estimates of the number of private jets in China range from a few hundred to around 2,000. Asian Sky Group says the registered “fleet” of private jets in mainland China rose to 339 last year from 299 in 2015. Passengers include wealthy individuals as well as corporate staff people who need fast access to clients or properties that are tough to reach by commercial airlines.
Aircraft vendors are already getting more orders in China.
French aircraft maker Dassault’s China sales for Falcon-model aircraft, for example, have jumped to 50% of its Asia Pacific total after climbing since 2013, Aviation Week magazine says. Its American peer Gulfstream Aerospace’s China fleet has grown 50% over he past five years to 120, according to a company publicist.
Operators still hope for faster approval of flight plans by private jet and for more well-located airports that can smoothly handle them. Today 310 airports accept private aircraft, and China has set a goal for 500 by 2020. Aviators now use less convenient landing spots for lack of access to the major airports.
“The need has been there for a while. I think there are a lot of regulations that need to be in place,” says Juliane von Heimendahl, chief marketing officer with the private jet operator Luxaviation. “People thought it would go faster. It’s been really slow. Things are going for the better, but I don’t think we’re where we want to be.”