The general aviation industry is set to spread its wings rapidly with the rising use of small aircraft and a boost from the authorities.
Apart from airlines' scheduled flights and military aircraft, general aviation encompasses almost everything that flies; and ranges from corporate jets, companies which cater to businesses and air taxis to crop-dusting, cloud seeding and aerial photography.
"It has many advantages such as flexibility and efficiency," said Wu Changping, director of the general aviation division of the General Administration of Civil Aviation (CAAC).
"The proper development of the country's civil aviation sector needs a balanced growth of scheduled and general aviation operations."
There is an increasing need for business flights and air taxi services to keep pace with China's growing economy, Wu said.
"More multinational companies are opening branches in China, and more Chinese companies are expanding. They all need flights other than those provided by airlines."
Globally, there are about 340,000 general aviation aircraft, making up 97 per cent of the 350,000 civil aviation airplanes; but in China, the number of general aviation airplanes is less than half of the total aircraft.
CAAC statistics show that at the end of 2005, there were more than 600 general aviation airplanes in China, which chalked up about 80,000 flight hours last year.
In contrast, there are at least 220,000 small airplanes in the United States, which carry 133 million passengers each year to more than 19,000 airports and heliports, according to www.gaservingamerica.org, a US website on general aviation.
Another difference is that 70 per cent of general aviation flight hours in the US are business-related, while a majority of the small airplanes in China are used in agriculture, forestry and industries like offshore drilling and mineral exploration.
The reasons for these are many.
"First, we lack airports and pilots," said Yang Jie, a member of the general aviation expert committee under the Chinese Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Apart from makeshift airstrips where small planes can take off and land, there are only 57 airports for general aviation apart from the 126 airports used for scheduled flights, according to Yang.
There is also a shortage of pilots for small airplanes about 1,000 said Yang, adding that China has only 13 pilot training schools.
Another important factor is availability of airspace.
"General aviation flights need to get approval from the authorities beforehand," Yang said. "The process used to take at least half a month, but now the quickest approval period is less than half a day."
This change makes Yang feel confident about the future of general aviation.
The expert estimates that China would have 10,000 general aviation aircraft by 2020, and general aviation flight hours will be three times more than that in 2005 to reach 260,000 flight hours by 2015.
The CAAC has made general aviation a priority in the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10). It expects the sector to grow by at least 10 per cent year on year, and see extensive usage in various fields.
Currently, 70 per cent of general aviation flight hours in China are devoted to agriculture, said Jiao Tianli, an organizer of China's first general aviation industry exposition to be held in Binzhou of Shandong in May.
(China Daily March 16, 2006)