|By Bradley Perrett
|Across China, airports are being expanded, airline traffic is booming and civil aircraft development is moving ahead, but that seems to be not enough for Beijing, which is according the sector high priority in a new national five-year economic plan.
Aircraft-building is included in seven industries that the plan has elevated to strategic significance, with specific mention of the importance of the Comac C919 narrowbody airliner program.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), meanwhile, will forge ahead with a massive program of airport construction and expansion, with a new emphasis on general aviation. The administration’s part of the five-year plan also includes less conspicuous but crucial infrastructure, such as a national civil aviation broadband data network and more robust radar coverage of the skies.
Airline traffic is forecast to grow at an average of 13% in the five years to 2015, just a little slower than recent rates around 15%, despite the imminent opening of thousands of kilometers of high-speed rail lines (AW&ST March 7, p. 76).
The five-year plan is a Communist tradition and reflects the enduring instinct of the Chinese government to direct development of large swaths of the economy. This is the country’s 12th plan, covering 2011-15.
It groups the aeronautics sector as part of the manufacturing of high-end equipment, one of its seven strategic “rising” industries. “The high-end equipment sector must put stress on developing aviation equipment,” the plan says. “We must build an industrial platform for domestically made trunk and regional aircraft, general aviation aircraft and helicopters.”
The C919 program, launched in 2008, is mentioned as one of the large and important programs that must be pursued. To a certain extent, the document only confirms it as a national priority; the program has already been listed among 16 top scientific and technology efforts for 2006-20, alongside such ambitions as making advanced new drugs and executing manned space missions (AW&ST Sept. 6, p. 48).
“This at least means that there is no drop in support for the C919,” says one foreign government official who has been monitoring the program. It also suggests that, should the C919 hit development trouble, it will not lack political backing for extra funding.
Comac’s interpretation of the five-year plan is that the state-owned company is among the enterprises that “will receive strong support from the nation to accelerate their development.” The plan also stresses the importance of regional aircraft, indicating the Comac ARJ21 regional jet and the MA700 turboprop proposed by Avic Aircraft, part of national aeronautics conglomerate Avic.
Another part of the group, Avicopter, will be pleased by the mention of helicopter production as part of a strategic industry, but perhaps a larger breakthrough for Avic is the identification of general aviation aircraft as equally important. As China gradually opens its low-altitude airspace to general aviation, Avic General Aircraft is moving to grab a big chunk of the emerging market.
All of this is happening against a backdrop of rising incomes that are feeding demand for aviation—including private flying—and yielding tax income that the government can direct to its favored industries. The five-year plan envisages 7% economic growth in 2011-15, compared with about 10% on average for the past three decades. Five-year plan growth forecasts have routinely been exceeded, but even if this one is right in its conservatism, the average Chinese will have 40% more income in 2015 than last year.
In the same period, air traffic of Chinese mainland airlines will rise by more than 80%, or 13% a year, according to the CAAC. The number of commercial aircraft will rise to 2,700, up 11% a year, while passenger numbers expand at the same pace. Comparison between the passenger and traffic forecasts implies longer average routes, reflecting impending competition from the 380-kph (240-mph) trains that are going into service.
Still, the forecasts generally show little effect from rail competition, which Vice Minister of Civil Aviation Wang Changshun did not even mention in a speech this month outlining the CAAC’s five-year plan. Careful examination of foreign experience may have led the administration to conclude that fast-rail competition will only dent Chinese civil aviation growth. But it is worth bearing in mind that in China, as elsewhere, high-growth forecasts, whether fulfilled or not, also help justify an agency’s ambitious investment programs.
And the CAAC does have startlingly large plans for infrastructure development in 2011-15, including 65 new airports. “In accordance with demand, in large cities we will build second airports—for example in Beijing, Chengdu and Xiamen,” says Wang.
Building of Beijing’s second major airport was due to begin last year. Industry officials say it is being held up by the air force’s reluctance to close the joint military-civil airfield at Nanyuan, whose traffic would interfere with the proposed new facility at Daxing, a southern district of Beijing. The Daxing government includes the airport in its new five-year plan.
As a result of the construction campaign, China will have more than 220 airports by 2015. That is not many for a population of 1.3 billion, but even now most airports are unprofitable. Their construction might be justified as preparation for the future, however, and the CAAC does say that it will build in advance of requirements.
Airports will be built in remote areas, partly to support tourism, by remodeling general aviation fields, of which China has few, and by allowing civil access to air force runways. Zunyi, a western city of about 400,00 people more than 100 km (60 mi.) from an airport, is one place that will thereby get access to air services.
Apparently counted in the 65 new airports are 15 that will replace old ones that are constrained by downtown locations and will be closed. Construction of five of those replacements is already in progress, at Kunming, Hefei, Yantai, Shantou and Qinhuangdao. Among the 10 to be added in 2011-15 will be replacement airports at Dalian and Qingdao.
In addition, “we plan to modify or expand about 90 airports,” says Wang. “At the big hub airports Beijing Capital, Shanghai Pudong and Guangzhou Baiyun we will improve equipment . . . and increase international competitiveness.
“We will accelerate new building work at important provincial airports such as Kunming, Chengdu and Xi’an.”
China will also cultivate regional hubs, remodeling or expanding according to demand. Many Chinese airports are owned by local governments, which are usually quite eager to construct more facilities of almost any kind, often without much regard for present demand. That is one reason why so many Chinese airports are not profitable.
The final part of the airport plan concerns general aviation fields. Wang gave no number, but local governments are again likely to be enthusiastic developers, limited mainly by how long it takes the CAAC to open their local low-altitude airspace.
General aviation flight time will grow at 16% a year, the CAAC says in a forecast that may disappoint Western manufacturers hoping for a bonanza of Chinese sales. Indeed, the growth rate is barely higher than that seen for the much more mature commercial sector.
China is forecast to have more than 2,000 general aviation aircraft by 2015, doubling with five years of growth averaging 15%.
On the ground, the CAAC is planning 10 regional control centers—including one each at Shenyang, Chengdu, Xi’an and Urumqi—and increasing the capacity of 10 others, among them Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Ground infrastructure plans also include a broadband data network and a “core air traffic control network.” Navigation systems will be improved and continuous radar coverage of airways implemented. Busy airports will get overlapping radar coverage.
Photo Credit: Beijing Capital Int. Airport