A senior civil aviation official yesterday refuted suggestions that China's rapid introduction of airliners might outgrow demand, saying that buying around 100 a year over the next five years is "suitable".
"China will purchase more than 100 aircraft each year in the 11th Five-Year Plan period (2006-10)," said Gao Hongfeng, vice-director of the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC), at a State Council Information Office press conference in Beijing.
Ordering airliners is a long-term procedure with some deliveries taking place over 10 years, Gao said. "Market needs and flight safety are taken into account," he said.
With an aviation market that is growing second only to the United States, China contracted to buy 442 airliners last year from US aviation giant Boeing and European aircraft manufacturer Airbus with deliveries spread out over several years.
However, some experts have criticized the size of the order, saying China does not need that many.
Qiu Lianzhong, a senior expert at a Beijing-based civil aviation research centre, said the rapid expansion of China's air fleet might entail some risks.
"The surging cost of fuel and pilot training leave little room for profits," Qiu said. "Airline companies will have to raise airfares or collect fuel surcharges to make more profit, which might discourage people from flying."
On the other hand, if air fleets keep expanding, vicious competition will be unavoidable, leading to rapid growth of the industry but with little profit or even losses.
The robust market has propelled airline companies such as Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines to expand their fleets. According to CAAC statistics, about 138 million people flew on the Chinese mainland in 2005, up 105 per cent from 2000.
The number is expected to double again by 2010 both in passenger and cargo traffic, Gao said.
However, he said: "We will face a lot of challenges in training pilots, especially captains, for these airplanes."
At the end of last year, the Chinese mainland had 863 airplanes, but the number of pilots was only around 11,000, which insiders say is far fewer than the industry norm.
Already, State-owned Air China plans to recruit its first foreign pilots to cope with staff shortages.
Gao said the CAAC, as the industry regulator, set strict requirements on airline companies in pilot training, maintenance and managerial staff to ensure safe operations.
"If the expansion of the fleet conflicts with flight safety, we must put safety first," he said.
There are more than 5,000 flights every day and more than 11,000 takeoffs and landings. Therefore, the pressure on safety is very high, the vice-director said.
(China Daily February 16, 2006)