Civil aviation: Challenges en route to cruising altitude

Things are looking up for aviation in China: Last week, the Civil Aviation Administration suggested the country would need 500,000 civilian pilots by 2035 to keep up with demand, and in late October word came that authorities would begin management of low-altitude airspace next year. According to a Reuters report, guidelines on opening up airspace below 1,000 meters in 2015 are expected before year’s end, and aircraft manufacturer Airbus has forecast (pdf) that China will rank as the world’s busiest domestic air travel market within a decade.

However, visibility remains low for the details and timetable of reforms, and within the realm of civil aviation both commercial (airline) and general (private) aviation are still faced with a dearth of talent and infrastructure in China. The latter in particular remains largely unwelcome at China’s major airports and is still in need of the information systems necessary to ensure safe long-distance flights. Whatever limits there are on supply, though, demand is growing.

“Five years ago few people were talking about general aviation (GA),” said Scott Jiang, sales director for Cirrus Aircraft in China. “But now the government, private people, companies – everybody’s talking about GA.”  That said, Jiang was a bit more cautious when it came to predicting the demand for pilots two decades out: “Five-hundred thousand? I don’t think so.”

GA in China took off in the 1950s, but stalled in the 60s during the Cultural Revolution and didn’t really right itself until the late 90s, after the Civil Aviation Administration of China released a policy decision calling for coordinated development of the industry. That revival has continued on through the start of this century: Bill Schultz, Senior Vice President of Business Development in China for Textron Aviation, owner of Cessna Aircraft, said the company’s China fleet totaled 320, with 50 jets, 70 turboprop planes, and 210 aircraft at flight schools.

Jiang, who estimated Cirrus now has 80-100 planes in China, said he’d heard word that military clearance would no longer be required for takeoff of GA aircraft next year, but wasn’t sure it would really happen. The latest announcement from the National Security Bureau promised greater reform of how low-altitude airspace is managed (video), but didn’t give a clear timetable. Schultz said Cessna expected the government’s willingness to open up lower altitudes that are vital to GA would continue to grow.

“Access to that low altitude airspace will be much more available in a much more timely manner, and I think that’s going to open up this industry very quickly,” Schultz said.

But tight military controls on airspace over the mainland aren’t the only culprit behind Chinese aviation’s infamous inefficiency. Even if onerous low-altitude restrictions were lifted, infrastructure shortcomings would still keep many aircraft grounded, whether from delays or lack of information.

For commercial aviation, China’s airports rank worst in the world in flight delays: 82% of flights at Beijing’s international airport and 71% of flights out of Shanghai’s don’t leave on time, according to a 2013 FlightStats report (pdf), a testament to the industry’s current inability to handle large flight volume. The three-week-long curbing of commercial flights this summer for military drills also highlighted the unpredictability that keeps many here riding the rails – China’s trains run on time, even if most of them take longer than air travel.

For private fliers hoping to escape interminable terminal waits there is little hope, at least for now. Most airports provide no accommodation for the smaller planes on offer from firms like Cirrus and Cessna. The inability to handle any traffic beyond expected capacity was demonstrated in April 2012, when the first touchdown by a single-engine Cessna Caravan at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport made waves among aviation enthusiasts simply because airport authorities granted it a (late-night) landing slot for an aviation exhibition. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the milestone landing later led to a second struggle: Convincing a control tower to simply stay open late to clear it for takeoff.

GA also requires the kind of information systems that enable safe long-distance flight. Cirrus’s Jiang said that the current lack of systems to deliver vital data like real-time weather conditions for non-commercial aircraft prevents them from flying distances of more than 30-50km for point-to-point transportation of the kind aviation enthusiasts and business executives in the US often avail themselves of, even in perfect conditions. These drawbacks previously kept the use of GA aircraft in China confined to public service and economic development, and out of consumer aviation, according to an analysis by the global management consulting arm of PWC (pdf) of data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

However, Cessna’s Schultz said there had been a shift in the last year as the market became more aware of private aircrafts’ potential as tools to increase travel efficiency in addition to current popular uses in China including mapping, photography, aerial surveys, emergency medical flights and cloud seeding. Schultz also said continued investment in airports and necessary infrastructure was needed, adding that as the Cessna increased its own investment in China’s manufacturing capability – it has opened two local factories – he expected GA aircraft sales, use and support facilities to grow as well.

Those problems aside, China still faces a dearth of qualified home-grown pilots. The number training facilities can currently turn out each year is limited as well, with estimates suggesting domestic pilot schools produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 1-3,000 new pilots every year. But fresh graduates like those produced at said schools aren’t what China’s airlines need most: High-quality, experienced pilots – captains. Those can take a decade or more to rise through the ranks, a buffer that will further delay potential supply from meeting rapidly rising domestic demand as airports continue to pop up around the country.

Whether the industry will really need half a million pilots within the next two decades is less certain. Until the local talent pool grows, though, captains from the US and other countries with developed aviation sectors seem happy to pick up the slack as desperate Chinese airlines pay them roughly twice what they could expect back home. 

Author: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)

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