ABACE has been undergoing a slow evolution, with many more aircraft on display registered from Asian locations and exhibitors from young or startup companies from the region, a change that is reflecting a maturing market, said Ed Bolen, president and CEO of ABACE co-host National Business Aviation Association (NBAA).
When NBAA and AsBAA originally discussed the return of ABACE in 2011, they focused on bringing the international business aviation community to China, Bolen said. “We wanted to make Shanghai a center stage for the international business aviation community with the expectation that doing that will help facilitate growth but inevitably [ABACE] will have Chinese character,” Bolen said. “I think we are seeing that play out.”
ABACE began with few aircraft with Chinese markings, he said, adding, “When we first came here, a lot of planes were N registered. They were flown over for the event and flown out. Now you see there are a lot of Chinese operators whose livery or markings are on the airplanes. Its kind of the evolution we hoped to foster.”
An underlying purpose for ABACE has been to serve as a platform that helps the growth and maturation of the industry throughout the region. “This is not just a trade show. It is not just about putting buyers and sellers together,” he said. The show is about bringing the international community together, and importantly bringing government leaders together to educate and discuss key policies that would help advance the industry. “That’s what makes this show so special,” Bolen added.
He noted that ABACE from the beginning has had strong support from the city of Shanghai, the CAAC, and the Shanghai Airport Authority.
Now they are seeing a strong commitment on the part of the Chinese government to help expand the general aviation community. “It’s exciting to see we’ve gone from being part of the 12th five-year plan to being part of the 13th five-year plan,” Bolen said. “The number of airports that have been built are in the hundreds. Conversations are ongoing about getting dedicated business aviation airports. Investment in general aviation companies continues. I believe that there is an overall optimism that the market is maturing here and it’s happening across the board.”
While a focus at the higher levels of the Chinese government has been on the lighter end of general aviation, Bolen believes that benefits business aviation. “It’s all good if it create pilots, if it increases familiarity with aviation, if it drives airports, and it drives understanding.” He expressed pride in the diversity of the aircraft on display, including single-engine pistons and amphibians. “We worked hard to make that a possibility. We recognize for business aviation in China to grow, we need to evolve the general aviation market.”
But Bolen acknowledged that challenges remain. “We would like to see more airports and more business aviation airports, particularly in the city centers.” He noted the key role business aviation airports play in other parts of the world. ”We’d like to see more of that [in China].”
The industry also is encouraging more policies that recognize the value of business aviation to job growth, economic development, and humanitarian efforts. “That’s all very important,” he said.
Policies have been progressing, too. “When we started ABACE, it took days and weeks to get permits. It now takes hours. So that’s going in the right direction.“
Airspace access is still another area in need of improvement, however. “We’d like to see more liberal access to airspace. In order to grow, we need airports, we need access to airspace. That’s fundamental.”
The industry continues to work toward recognition of the differences between business and general aviation and the scheduled airline world, believes Bolen. And although trade and taxes can present challenges, he is confident that the government has a vision for growth.
He acknowledged the recent dispute over tariffs. “We’re clearly in a situation where proposals have been made, counter proposals have been made, and counter proposals to counters proposals. There’s been a lot going on in the past few weeks." But he noted that conversations over the tariffs continue and no policies have yet been put in place. Leaders also are indicating a willingness to work through these issues. “There’s still a lot of dialogue going on.”
Beyond regulatory issues, Bolen noted that China also needs to expand its workforce, needing more pilots, technicians, and women in aviation. “It’s a significant issue here [in China],” he said. In the U.S. a large pilot population already exists, exposing children to the possibilities of the industry. “That is much less prevalent here,” he said. “Making people aware of aviation opportunities is something that is going to require a lot of outreach.”
A hallmark of ABACE is its careers day that draws students from the area. The event not only serves to educate young people on the possibilities but also is “tactile,” he said, enabling them to see and touch airplanes. “We hope that it ignites a passion.”