AIN Blog: When in China...

 - April 21, 2014, 4:01 PM
Beechcraft at ABACE
Beechcraft brought two piston-powered airplanes, a Bonanza and Baron, to Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai for ABACE 2014. Photo by Matt Thurber

Spending a week in China at the Asian Business Aviation Conference & Exhibition is a refreshing reminder that as much as countries like China want to put general aviation to work, the actual implementation is going to be nothing like what aviation-minded westerners are used to. It seems we have a naive desire to see general aviation in China replicate the landscape of non-commercial aviation in the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

But that isn’t going to happen. China is adopting GA, but it is doing so on its own terms and in its own unique ways. And slowly but surely GA in China is growing. More than 300 business jets operate in the country, with a third based in easier-to-deal-with Hong Kong, according to Asian Sky Group’s annual report on the Chinese business jet fleet. Nearly 500 helicopters fly mostly utility roles, according to Asian Sky’s Chinese helicopter fleet report. The number of light airplanes is anybody’s guess, but they can be found in China, primarily in training roles.

Each year when I travel to Shanghai for the ABACE show there is more progress in opening tightly controlled airspace to GA flying. There are areas now where a pilot can go flying after filing a flight plan without obtaining a flight permit, which was unheard of a short time ago. For the first time this year piston-powered aircraft were allowed to fly to Shanghai Hongqiao Airport for the ABACE show, and a Beechcraft Bonanza and Baron and a Chinese-built Diamond DA40 showed up. This is a significant step, considering that two years ago there was much consternation about the prospect of allowing a King Air to land at Hongqiao because the local controllers couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to fit such a small, slow-moving airplane between the airliners that frequent the airport at a high rate.

Everyone involved in China’s immature GA market is learning quickly, and ultimately the global aviation industry will benefit.

For those who lament the fact that Chinese investors have bought or funded a lot of GA manufacturing capability in recent years, let’s think about what that really means. The tally now includes Mooney, Glasair, Continental Motors, Superior Air Parts, Brantly Helicopter, Cirrus Aircraft, Icon Aircraft and Enstrom Helicopter. And while Cessna has scaled back its plans to manufacture three or four aircraft in China and halted production of its made-in-Shenyang SkyCatcher light sport aircraft, plans still call for assembly of new Citation XLS+s and Caravans in China.

Obviously western investors spurned the opportunity to make GA investments (Piper Aircraft could be added to this list, too, but it is owned by investors in Brunei). So smart Chinese investors saw an opportunity and picked up a treasure store of GA capability on the cheap, saving years and years of development work that ultimately would just be reinventing the flying wheel. We should be grateful that Chinese investors saw the opportunity when no one else did, otherwise the shrinking of the GA industry would be worse than it already is.

Interestingly, that shrinkage might have been smaller if Hawker Beechcraft had accepted the $1.79 billion that the Chinese owners of Superior Air Parts offered for what was then a full jet, turboprop and piston manufacturer. After shutting down its jet production lines and reorganizing, what was left of Beechcraft was sold to Cessna parent company Textron for just $1.4 billion. And while it’s encouraging that Textron saw value in Beechcraft, this move does represent further shrinkage of the GA industry because now Cessna has zero incentive to develop its own new line of twin-engine turboprops, and Beechcraft will not try to compete with Cessna’s Caravan. Of course, the stronger financial base and the engineering talent at the two companies might lead to a turboprop single that might finally offer competition to the French TBM and the Swiss Pilatus PC-12.

Would a Chinese-owned Beechcraft have promoted the expansion of GA? Perhaps. The GA industry’s biggest problem is lack of volume over which to spread massive costs. If China keeps making inroads into GA and builds many more airports and encourages more citizens to learn to fly, we could see a long hoped-for revitalization of GA, but with a distinctly Chinese flavor. I, for one, would welcome these changes if it means an end to GA’s long slide.