The mainland will push ahead with airport expansion, even though more than 70 per cent of its 182 existing airports lost nearly two billion yuan (HK$2.43 billion) among them last year.
The total profit from all mainland airports last year came to 4.6 billion yuan, and most of the loss-making ones were small regional airports, Li Jiaxiang, head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), told a press conference yesterday.
Li also blamed the losses on a shortage of airports.
He said all 12 small regional airports in Yunnan province were making a profit because of the 'network effect', apparently referring to a comprehensive airport network.
'It's like planting trees. One tree will die, but if you plant more, it will become a forest, and the trees will grow higher and higher,' Li said.
He advocated a focus on airport construction, saying civil aviation had developed rapidly in recent years but infrastructure construction had lagged the broader sector.
The mainland has fewer than 300 airports, including only 182 conventional public airports, with the remainder earmarked for other purposes, ranging from farming to industrial use. It plans to build 82 new airports and expand 101 existing facilities during the 12th five-year plan, which ends in 2015, Li said.
He said Brazil and South Africa have more airports than China.
The central government provided more than 90 billion yuan to support the development of the civil aviation industry under the 11th five-year plan, which was more than double the amount spent during the 10th five-year plan.
Beijing has reduced its focus on the railway sector since the arrest of former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun for suspected corruption in February last year. However, railway spending has recently picked up, and fixed-asset investment in railways stood at 48.1 billion yuan last month, according to the Ministry of Railways.
Mainland airports suffer from overcrowded air routes, causing frequent delays, but Li said 'the key is to improve airlines' operating qualities'. The CAAC found that more than 37 per cent of delays last year were the airlines' fault.
The CAAC has implemented measures such as optimising air routes and adding new ones over the last six months to tackle the air traffic congestion problem, and they were having an effect, Li said.
Huang Min, a director at the National Development and Reform Commission, said small airports contributed to tourism and to the regional economy.