Flyer Oliver Qi looks forward to day when dreams take wing

Engineering-trained Oliver Qi is trying to find his footing in the business of teaching the Chinese to embrace freedom in the US skies

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 7:32am

The grey skies and dense haze that have shrouded Chinese cities in recent days may dissuade anyone thinking about taking flying lessons. And the scenery around airports that are open to general aviation could become monotonous after a few lessons.

That's why Oliver Qi Chunhui , 43, has looked west, all the way to the United States, where he is helping people realise their dreams of flying, with a spectacular view to boot. Sitting alongside a licensed instructor, clients get the chance to pilot planes or helicopters across lakes and deserts and over waterfalls.

Qi opens up about organising trips that allow people to enjoy a freedom that is fraught with difficulties in China. He also talks about the struggles the company he co-founded last year, Fly With Me (China), has faced in getting itself off the ground.

Why did you set up this company?

I have always dreamt of flying. My parents were engineers at a plane manufacturing plant under the then aviation ministry in the western province of Shaanxi . I spent my childhood observing and playing with aviation instruments. In 1987, I enrolled in the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics to major in computer engineering. After graduation, I joined a research institute under the ministry to research and develop autopilot instruments for planes. At that time, China had yet to adopt advanced computer control systems in plane designs. I was frustrated that my knowledge was of little use. Things did not change during my three years there. In 1994, when I was 24, I quit the job.

After that, I tried various other jobs, from working for advertising companies to becoming a sales agent for US electronic products. More than a decade passed, and I didn't come any closer to realising my dream until 2010, when the State Council and the Central Military Commission said China would gradually open low-altitude airspace to general aviation. That meant civil light aircraft would be allowed to fly below 1,000 metres. I was thrilled by the prospects of great market opportunities and decided to set up a company to help people fulfil their dreams of flying.

Together with a university classmate who lives in the US and an American pilot instructor, we made the preparations and founded the company in June last year.

Why did you decide to fly in the US, instead of in China?

When the official announcement came out in 2010, many experts forecast that the move to open up airspace could unleash a pent-up demand for private air services and create a market worth more than 1 trillion yuan (HK$1.18 trillion). In recent years, many local governments have shown great enthusiasm in building related infrastructure, setting aside land and attracting massive investments to establish aviation industrial zones. The zones are often designed to draw plane and spare-parts manufacturers, logistics companies and research and development centres. But while local officials were keen on the investments that would drive economic growth and help their careers, they paid insufficient attention to the feasibility of the projects. They didn't bother to ask themselves: who would use the planes and for what purposes? Do the makers have the necessary manufacturing technology? Are there enough pilots to fly the planes?

Many of the industrial zones are doomed to fail, which means the huge investments poured into those places will go to waste. Also, the opening up of airspace for private use is limited to areas around airports in select cities. And when a private flight is desired, the person must seek approval from a military-level air traffic supervisor beforehand. The procedure can be time-consuming and a turn-off for personal flights.

Conditions are quite different in the US, where policy restrictions on personal flights are minimal. There are many training schools where people can be trained by experienced instructors. After passing the tests, they are allowed to fly alone. Instead of being an unattainable dream, flying is part of the leisure lives of many Americans.

What is one of your typical flying packages like?

We have different packages for adult aviation enthusiasts, daring juveniles and family tourists. The schemes for adults focus on offering them flying experiences ranging from day flights to night flights, flying in formation and parachuting. Packages for juveniles combine flying with visits to prestigious universities and museums. Those for family tourists include city sightseeing, hot-air balloon flights or leisure beach outings in addition to flying. In all the packages, we provide comfortable hotel accommodation and delicious local food.

How did your clients react after going on these trips?

They were very excited. Company executives shared their flying experiences with employees and motivated them by offering a company-sponsored flying trip to the best performers. Middle school pupils were thrilled by the experience and the bird's-eye view they got from the plane they were flying. The adventure almost made them heroes in the eyes of their parents and classmates.

What kind of customers do you target?

The rich, the successful and those who love adventures. When the company was founded, I imagined that those types of people in their 40s would be interested in the service. It should be a big market, I figured, as you can go to Disneyland and other tourist destinations in the US and see rich and affluent Chinese people everywhere.

Now, I'm confused about who my target customers should be. Business is not as good as we had expected. Since the company was established in June, we have helped fewer than 15 people fly - and the first few flyers were my friends. Later, several hundred people responded to our invitations to a marketing event, and some of them expressed interest in flying with us. They were from all walks of life - men and women, young and old, not necessarily rich or successful, and from various industries. But most have not signed up for a package thus far.

I'm still thinking about how to turn interest into action. It might take some time for the change to happen. Maybe the boom won't come until people start thinking seriously about flying, until the flying culture becomes more deeply rooted in China so that the desire to embrace freedom and challenge one's limits becomes more important to individuals.

Oliver Qi spoke to Jane Cai