Zhejiang businessman Wang Bin had it all worked out when he decided to buy a helicopter from France last December. It would relieve him of the tedium of a six-hour drive from his building materials company in Yiwu city to factories in Shaowu, in neighbouring Fujian province. It would also impress clients and help win more contracts if he offered them a whirl. And when not in use, he could charter it out to make extra money.
Wang forked out 12 million yuan for his Eurocopter EC120B, 6 million yuan for related equipment and another 2 million yuan for maintenance and operating fees. But the helicopter turned out to be a white elephant. It was used fewer than 20 hours during the past eight months, and never flew outside Zhejiang province. Most of the time, the helicopter was parked at an airfield in Dongyang city, the nearest approved site, about two hours' drive from his head office. 'It's too hard to get a flying permit, especially to fly in a different province,' he says.
The businessman is so fed up he advertised in the Zhejiang Daily last month to sell it, but has yet to find a buyer. The adverse publicity surrounding his purchase was another reason to sell the helicopter. '[The media reports] made it sound like I was showing off,' Wang says. 'People were talking about how rich I was and turning to me for help. It's a lot of pressure.'
Wang's woes are typical among the few owners of private aircraft on the mainland. Although there are a growing number of people in the country who can afford to have their own aircraft, tight control of airspace and inadequate airport facilities are hampering the development of private aviation.
According to official statistics, the mainland had fewer than 70 private or corporate aircraft in 2005, while Brazil, whose GDP is half that of China's, has more than 700. The US has about 200,000 private jets, the largest number in the world. 'The problem of developing the private jet industry in China lies more in the policy than the funding,' says He Chi, vice-president of Beijing Jingong Flying Club.
Military control over all airspace on the mainland makes for a lot of red tape. For a private jet to secure a landing slot at a civil airport within a flight area that may encompass three or four adjoining provinces, the pilot must submit a flight plan 24 hours in advance. That compares with a couple of hours in the US or Europe. To land at an airport in a different flight area, the plan must be submitted anywhere from a few days to a week in advance, He says. Before the Regulations for General Aviation Control came into effect in May 2003, pilots had to apply at least 10 days ahead for the right to fly between two civil airports.
The hold-up is due partly to disagreements within the government. In April, Beijing Business Today reported the chief pilot of Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), Yu Zhenfa, as saying it had drafted a plan to open up low-altitude airspace. But this was immediately contradicted by an anonymous top official from the CAAC, who told the Legal Daily that the military controls all mainland airspace and the administration can't make unilateral decisions.
Political considerations weigh heavily on decision makers. 'The CAAC has been looking into the issue of opening up low-altitude airspace for years and even made some plans. But after 9/11, all these moves stopped,' says an industry insider who requested anonymity. 'In fact, in places like Beijing, the airspace control is becoming more restricted.'
For instance, flying clubs in Beijing have been ordered to stop flights in March, when the two key annual political meetings, the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, are held.
In Wang's case, he couldn't get permission to fly from Zhejiang to his factories in Fujian because the two provinces come under different flight areas, and Fujian is under tight control due to its proximity to Taiwan. 'Fujian is a sensitive place, where a lot of airspace is out of bounds,' Wang says.
Technical limitations also hinder the expansion of private flight. The radar systems in some regions aren't advanced enough to identify small planes, so the military decided the simplest and safest step was to prohibit private flights, says the industry insider.
The lack of suitable airstrips for private use is another barrier. Wang earmarked some land near his Yiwu office and Shaowu factories and applied to aviation authorities to use the plots as helicopter landing sites, but has had no response. 'We've submitted applications for months, but didn't get any feedback,' he says.
Although most of the mainland's 156 airports are accessible to private jets, many lack suitable ground-handling facilities. In some cases, the refuelling nozzles or battery recharging couplers are incompatible with some types of aircraft. Only Beijing Capital Airport and Shanghai International Airport have separate facilities for private jets. But traffic at both places is so heavy they can't handle many private jets. 'Beijing Capital Airport can only manage private jets for VIPs like state leaders. Corporate jets often have to wait for hours for landing or taking off,' He says.
The mainland also lists 68 airfields for general aviation and 329 temporary airstrips, but most are located far from urban centres, which means they're inconvenient for aircraft owners such as Wang, who wants to use his helicopter as a flying taxi.
Beijing businessman Xing Jizhu loves to fly. After receiving his pilot's licence for fixed-wing aircraft in 2001, he considered buying a plane but dropped the idea when he learned about the tough restrictions on flight and the types of aircraft he could buy.
Individual purchase is restricted to the domestically produced Bee series, and small planes from three CAAC-approved manufacturers - Cessna, Diamond and Cirrus.
The safety of locally made planes is also a concern for potential buyers such as Xing. In April, Tan Chengnian, dubbed by the media as the mainland's first peasant pilot, died when the Bee-4 that he was flying crashed into a hillside in Shandong province.
'[The Bee] is no fun. I can't fly it over long distances. The most common use is to fly it over the golf course to study the holes,' Xing says.
He shares that view: the mainland's nouveau riche is only interested in advanced, imported aircraft, he says. 'Rich men despise the cheap planes.'
That's why he started the Jingong, a high-end flying club with its own airfield at Badaling, near the Great Wall. It will open next month after taking delivery of four new Cessna-172 planes. It's also expecting four helicopters at the end of the year: two Sikorskys and two Robinson R2s.
He anticipates a big demand for use of club aircraft within adjacent Hebei province, but says it's hard to offer flights to other provinces, which businessmen such as Wang want, although he's negotiating with airfields in Shandong and Inner Mongolia.
Despite the high concentration of rich Chinese and expats in Beijing, its status as the seat of power means the authorities are unlikely to loosen their grip on surrounding airspace anytime soon.
The regions where private aviation will first develop are the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta, most experts say. 'There's stronger demand for private jets and less control,' He says.