Industry officials are eyeing China’s next Five Year Plan, which will establish goals for 2016-2020, as an opportunity to build on a slow loosening of airspace restrictions. In the most recent Five Year Plan, which runs through 2015, China established a goal of improving general aviation standards and regulations, including the opening of low-altitude airspace. Government officials have followed through on those goals incrementally, gradually releasing military-controlled airspace and improving the efficiency of processing permits.
In August 2014, China took a significant step towards liberalizing airspace below 1,000 meters “true height" (3,280 feet above mean sea level) with a rule the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) jointly issued with the State Council, the Air Traffic Control Commission and Central Military Commission.
That rule outlines procedures and restrictions for operating in four classifications of airspace, including pre-determined “free flying routes” for VFR flights without prior permission. Other classifications involved: those under control and requiring prior permission: areas that do not require prior permission but remain under surveillance: and areas where aircraft can fly freely after filing flight plans. This implemented the classifications that developed in recent years on a trial basis.
“This regulation advances the Chinese government's announced commitment to open access to lower altitude airspace on a nationwide basis and is a welcome step in the further opening of the GA market in China,” Ed Smith, senior v-p of international and environmental affairs for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, told the association members in an outline of the rules. The regulation further detailed services, equipment requirements and airspeed limitations, along with flight-application procedures.
The rule was the second of three anticipated as the Chinese government moves to free up airspace. The first came in November 2013, when the government issued regulations covering the approval and management of general aviation flights. That rule, Smith said, “greatly liberalized the flight-permit-approval process for a wide variety of GA flights.” A third regulation is anticipated to cover air traffic control, Smith said.
The August rule cleared the way for some key operations, such as emergency medical services and air tours. The helicopter market has a greater opportunity to expand with this liberalization.
But the vast majority of airspace, including that used by most business aircraft, remains under military control. Smith said the eventual liberalization of the airspace will be critical to the long-term growth of the industry. “Lack of accessibility is the largest impediment to the growth of general aviation,” he said.
Doug Carr, vice president of safety, security, operations and regulation for the National Business Aviation Association, agreed, saying, “China will need to increase the [permissible] altitudes to facilitate greater business-aviation use.” Both Carr and Smith, however, believe the steps taken so far have been positive. “I think there’s plenty of momentum for liberalization,” Smith said.
“The PRC government has stated its goal to open up the airspace, but that process will take time,” said Ty Dubay, president of NetJets China. NetJets last fall became one of the first international business-aircraft operators to obtain an air operator certificate from the CAAC. “We have seen some positive moves to open the lower-level airspace, which is a great starting point,” Dubay said.
Industry officials are hoping the next step will be to 3,000 meters, or close to 10,000 feet. This would spur a training market that also is a critical piece of growth of the industry in China. For now, though, “Nothing’s happening at the upper altitudes,” Smith said.
But for aircraft flying at the higher altitudes, permit requirements have improved. “The amount of red tape has decreased,” Smith said, and the turnaround process has improved over time. In 2013, the government reduced permit lead times from five days to three days. “China has looked to reduce processing times,” Carr said. But he adds it is still a matter of context. The key, he added, is to be informed of the requirements and to plan ahead.
The handling of business aircraft, however, is becoming smoother as the government becomes more familiar with their operations as more such aircraft operate in the country, Carr said.
This education is particularly important as security concerns continue to guide policies. During the most recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting held in November in Beijing, the region was closed to business-aircraft traffic, Carr noted. “We do see progress but we also see examples of traditional views of security,” he said.
Industry officials are hoping that the ongoing education will open the door to discussions on further liberalization, as the government lays the groundwork for the 13th Five Year Plan, 2016-2020. “There are ongoing discussions to determine how much airspace would be reasonable to include in the next Five Year Plan,” Carr said. Industry leaders are looking at several opportunities throughout 2015 to work with government regulators on issues such as access. These include ABACE, but also other events that will be held throughout the year, including a general aviation exhibition in Chengdu. “This will be a topic during several trips we have planned to China,” Carr said.