His company was flying high in 2013 when it sold 30 small civilian aircraft, Liu Liangjun recalls, but 2015 has seen the business hit turbulence.
“It’s caused by the macro environment. Investment in general aviation has slowed due to the overall economy,” said Liu, general manager of Changsha-based GALink Aviation Technology.
Following a surge of investment in general aviation around 2013, some investors, he said, have shut their general aviation companies. “Some lack the money that came from their main businesses to continue funding their general aviation branch, and some just cannot overcome the low returns which are common in the initial period of a general aviation company,” said Liu, who has been in the industry for more than a decade.
But a new guideline for the aviation industry was released by the State Council, the cabinet, on May 17 that is expected to “give the industry a shot in the arm”, Liu said.
The guideline, for all aircraft, excluding military and commercial jets, is “the first of its kind”, according to Yu Yi, an associate professor of general aviation at the Civil Aviation Management Institute of China.
Previously, general aviation was classified in official documents as a sector of the civil aviation industry, but this time it was singled out, indicating the importance that the authorities have attached to the industry, he said.
According to the executive meeting of the State Council on May 4, China hopes to make the general aviation industry “a new economic growth point”. The guideline is part of the initiatives that the nation has adopted to push forward the supply-side structural reform, which will bring about a significant upgrade of the industrial structure and productivity.
The guideline aims to build a friendly environment for general aviation investors and eventually create a market worth more than 1 trillion yuan ($153 billion) by 2020. The number of general aircraft is expected to exceed 5,000, with annual flight hours exceeding 2 million.
To achieve that target, the guideline targets problems that have hindered the industry’s development, including slow progress in the opening of low-altitude airspace and a shortage of airports.
Among the measures, efforts will be made to facilitate building more airports, bringing the total number to more than 500 by 2020. These airports are expected to cover all prefecture-level cities, major agriculture-producing and forest areas and at least half of the top-class tourist attractions.
The document opens low-altitude airspace for general aircraft “under 3,000 meters”, instead of under 1,000 meters, as in previous government documents. Gao Yuanyang, director of the General Aviation Industry Research Center under Beihang University, called it “a breakthrough”, because the airspace under 1,000 meters had been regarded as too low by industry insiders.
The guideline also simplifies and streamlines the procedures that small aircraft need to go through before taking to the sky.
Yu, from the civil aviation management institute, explained that previously general aviation operators needed to submit flight plans to both the civil aviation authority and Air Force for approval one day ahead of their flight.
But in the new plan, the time for submitting flight plans varies according to different airspaces involved. Some flights only need to submit plans four hours before takeoff. For flights in certain designated airspaces, operators need to report their flight plans to authorities just one hour before takeoff.
Meanwhile, airspace authorities are required to reply to applicants within two to three hours after a flight plan is submitted. In the past, the reply could come one hour before the flight was scheduled to take off, aviation operators said.
The experience of some general aircraft users in the past few years was “not good”, according to Liu from GALink Aviation Technology.
“The feedback from many customers showed they couldn’t fully enjoy the private plane they purchased because of lengthy approval procedures, lack of airports and the high cost of maintenance,” he said.
“Despite the high costs, they could only make a few flights a year. For some, private planes became a burden. But, I believe, the private ownership of small aircraft is actually key to the general aviation market in China.”
He urged a more detailed plan for implementation to be released as soon as possible.
Yu, from the civil aviation management institute, said the guideline will boost the use of light aircraft for sightseeing flights, urban public services such as police patrols, firefighting and medical assistance, and short-haul transportation in areas where ground travel takes much longer.
Luo Xu, branding director of Zhengzhou-based Henan Soaring Aviation Corp, said that through the guideline the government “provides a wide space for industry players to use their imagination and picture how they can use low-altitude airspace”.
“Just as the real estate industry, at its peak, boosted more than 100 relevant industries, the general aviation industry is also expected to become a huge engine for growth,” he said.