There is growing demand for short-range flights serving businesses and tourists, but the issue is who will fly them.
Li Jian, a 25-year-old helicopter pilot, has just signed up to fly with a general aviation operator based in Hebei province.
Li has been interested in flying since childhood. He was an aviation technician before attending a flight school for nine months in the United States, and he said that most of his classmates easily found jobs after getting their licenses.
“Many general aviation operators are eager to hire pilots and it is not a problem for us to get a job,” Li said.
The demand for general aviation pilots is set to increase as China further opens its low-altitude airspace. But talent is scarce, and that may constrain the sector’s development, experts said.
“The industry will benefit immensely from airspace management reform, but airspace is not the top challenge for the general aviation industry,” said Wu Jingkui, chairman of the Asian Business Aviation Association. A bigger problem is the shortage of skilled staff.
A problem like that takes time to solve to ensure the sector’s safe, efficient and steady growth, he said.
“I do not expect to see the industry boom suddenly,” Wu said. “Everything, from pilot training to researching the business, takes time.”
Some general aviation operators plan to train pilots themselves.
Bi Wei, chairman of CITIC Offshore Helicopter Co Ltd, the largest helicopter operator in China, said the company has been given approval to train pilots and technicians, and it will build a training center and schools for the purpose.
It will also help train pilots for other operators. On Nov 11, the company signed a contract to train three pilots for China Rescue and Salvage, under the Ministry of Transport.
“As the general aviation industry develops, the training business will be a huge market,” Bi said.
Other companies also want a slice of that market.
Zhang Jian is the general manager of HNA Aviation Academy’s marketing department, a subsidiary of HNA Group Co Ltd. That group is the parent of Hainan Airlines, which operates a network of scheduled domestic and international flights.
The HNA academy, the second-largest flying school in China in term of training hours, is moving into the private-license training business, but only 5 percent of its trainees are on that track at present.
Shortage of pilots grounds general aviation
About 130 to 140 students will graduate from the school this year, and most of them will work on scheduled flights, Zhang said, adding that the school has not seen a marked increase in general aviation trainees.
France-based Thales Group SA, an electrical systems and service provider for the aerospace, defense, transportation and security industries, is targeting China’s general aviation training market and expects its helicopter simulator business to increase in the Chinese mainland.
“China’s training market is huge and its ‘spring’ has come,” said Xia Jinsong, deputy chief executive officer of Thales China.
Last year, Thales signed a contract with Sichuan Haite High-tech Co Ltd, China’s only listed aviation maintenance company, to sell simulators for EC-135 helicopters and auxiliary facilities. The transaction was valued at about 10 million euros ($12.5 million).
“The number of helicopters in China will keep increasing after low-altitude airspace is open, and that will mean large business opportunities for related services such as training,” Haite High-tech said in a statement.
Although demand for general aviation pilots is huge, their incomes are much lower than those of civilian jet pilots who fly for major domestic and international carriers.
The basic salaries and hourly rates are about the same, Li Jian said, but there is a huge difference in flying hours.
“It would be a good month if we had 10 flying hours, but the ceiling for pilots flying regular routes is 100 hours each month,” Li said.
Actually, the lack of working hours is a problem across China’s general aviation industry, not just Li’s company.
The whole industry, with 1,519 aircraft, recorded 591,000 flight hours in 2013, compared with about 25 million hours in the United States, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
However, Li can expect more flying time in the future, as low-altitude airspace reform will serve as a catalyst for the general aviation sector.
A national meeting on low-altitude airspace management reform was held on Nov 21-22 to discuss draft regulations.
Wang Zhiqing, deputy head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, said China’s general aviation flying hours will reach 2 million annually, with more than 5,000 aircraft, by 2020.
“Demand for general aviation is huge and it is a rising industry with great potential,” Wang said.
Vice-Premier Ma Kai, who is also director of the National Airspace Management Committee, told the national meeting that reform should aim at promoting rapid, safe development of the general aviation sector and maximizing the use of low-altitude airspace.