Singapore Air Show

China takes accounting of traffic boom

 - November 30, 2006, 10:59 AM

The official statistics confirm what the aerospace industry has long anticipated: China’s air transport market is booming. The 2005 annual report of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) is yet to be published but all the indications are that the growth targets set for last year in the 2004 report were met.

The CAAC projected Chinese airlines would carry 140 million passengers and 3.2 million tons of cargo and mail last year, logging almost 2.7 million flight hours in the process. Comparable figures for 2004 were 121 million passengers (representing an almost 16-percent increase), 2.8 million tons (up 14 percent) and 2.4 million (up 10 percent).

But at the same time, the CAAC has acknowledged that the growth is taking its toll, with the agency reporting that it has insufficient “flight and technical personnel and inadequate management and control.”

Furthermore, a shortage of pilots is a looming problem in Chinese aviation, and some domestic airlines have been forced to employ expatriate crews. In addition to the country’s three local flight academies, students now are being sent to the U.S. and Australia for training. And one carrier, China Southern Airlines, has its own flight college in Western Australia, which it expects will double its student intake to prepare for a huge expansion of its own fleet.

Leisure Traffic

An annual economic growth rate of 9 percent is driving this upward spiral, with the people of the People’s Republic becoming more affluent in their lifestyles. Overseas vacations are now more common, with Chinese passports readily accepted in more than 60 countries.

And not all of China’s air transport growth is generated by the high profile cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

For instance, Chengdu, a city of some 10 million people in the central Chinese province of Sichuan, is served by Shingle Airport, which in 2004 ranked as the country’s sixth busiest gateway for passenger traffic and seventh for freight. Sichuan Airlines, a domestic carrier flying some 26 aircraft serving Chengdu, has achieved average annual passenger increases of 31 percent over the past three years, and 21 percent for cargo. Chris Hutchinson, general manager of Menzies Aviation, a ground handling joint venture with the Chengdu airport authority, told Aviation International News that his business grew 20 to 25 percent last year.

This increase in cargo transport to this inland city, two to three hour’s flight time from the coast, now allows produce such as seafood to appear on local restaurant menus. And the reverse cargo flow is edible livestock–goats, chickens, rabbits and frogs flown from the temperate mountains to China’s beach resorts.

In 2003, in the north of Sichuan province, the airport at Jui Zhai Gou opened, serving a region with great tourist appeal. When daily flights were introduced from Chengdu in 2004, passenger traffic increased by 400 percent.

Most Chinese airlines now offer frequent flyer programs, encouraging more flights. The carriers also issue credit cards, making flying easier for the country’s new traveling classes.

New domestic airlines have emerged in the last 12 months, among them three low-cost carriers. One of them, United Eagle Airlines, flies two Airbus A319 twinjets and is reporting steady load factors of 80 percent. Just prior to its start up, the Chengdu-based operator declared that it had no fear of competition from flagcarrier Air China, insisting that “there is enough new business for all to share.” The other two new low-cost carriers are Okay Airways and Spring Airlines.

The Chinese fleet is also taking delivery of new airliners–both bought and leased by carriers–at a constant rate. In 2004 alone, 140 imported aircraft (including 10 freighters) entered the country.

Startup Frenzy

Marking further expansion, nine new airlines were given approval to open 16 new routes to the mainland. China Southern Airlines has more than 70 aircraft on order from Boeing and Airbus, including the new super-large A380. At the other end of the scale, China Postal Airlines is phasing out its elderly Chinese-built Y8-100 turboprops and replacing them with three Boeing 737-300Fs.

China also is spending massive amounts of money on the construction of airports, with some 16 facilities at various stages of construction or enlargement projects. For instance, Beijing’s international airport is looking to expand its terminals to accommodate an annual passenger throughput of 37 million in time for China’s capital to host the Olympic Games in 2008. The price tag for this project is $2 billion.

Some 80 miles away from Beijing is Tianjin, currently being used as a cargo airport, but intended to be developed to serve as an overflow for the expected influx of tourists in 2008. A totally brand-new airport is planned for Kunming, in the southwest of the country, at a cost of around $1.3 billion.