With some long-awaited relaxation of the rules governing helicopter operations in China, prospects for the rotorcraft industry at last seem to be firming up. Last year the entire fleet (465 helicopters, 424 based in Mainland China) grew by 20 percent, according to the Asian Sky Group, which in February published the latest edition of its Greater China Civil Helicopter Fleet Report. The Hong Kong-based company’s projection for 2014 growth is 20 percent again, based on actual orders placed for helicopters in the region, bringing the total number of civil helicopters to more than 550 by the end of the year.
The largest user of civil helicopters in country is the oil and gas industry. Helicopters service the Bohai Bay, East China Sea and South China Sea oil platforms on a daily basis, and analysts see demand for helicopters such as the Sikorsky S-92 and Airbus EC225 in the future.
In Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong helicopters are being used as part of Ministry of Transportation and Government Flying Services, supporting police, EMS and SAR in those regions. As more areas, such as Heilongjiang province in North China, are opened for private helicopter and training operations it is expected that civil demand will grow.
China World Helicopter Association’s director general Luo You Zhen recently published a plan for commercial helicopter routes linking Chinese cities in the Ring Bohai region, starting with Tienjin and Dalian (236 miles/380 km); Dalian and Qingdao (199 miles/320 km); Tienjin and Qingdao (267 miles/430 km). Expected fares in an AW139 or similar 15-passenger helicopter are estimated to be around $350 one-way, according to Lou. The timeline for the project is keyed to correspond with the opening of more airspace for helicopters in 2016.
According to the Asian Sky report, Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter) is the leading rotorcraft supplier in China today with a 26-percent market share (121 aircraft). Robinson accounts for 102 helicopters, followed by Bell (74), Schweizer (52), Sikorsky (41) and AgustaWestland (31). While Sikorsky holds only a 9-percent market share in terms of aircraft numbers, it represents 30 percent in replacement value. Last year, Bell increased its fleet in Greater China by 32 percent. The most numerous rotorcraft in China today are Bell 407s, Bell 406s and Airbus Helicopters AS350s.
During 2013, the Civil Aviation Administration of China and the People’s Liberation Army opened up low-altitude airspace in some regions of China and announced plans to make this change across the country in 2015. The two agencies also introduced new rules that do away with the need to have military approval for many categories of general aviation operations.