Airbus Helicopters sees China, Hong Kong as biggest global market in 6 years
Airbus Helicopters, the world's largest civil helicopter maker, expects China to become its biggest market within six years as Beijing starts to lift restrictions on the use of low altitude airspace from next year.
Airbus Group's helicopter division expected to increase its annual sales in China to 150 units by 2020 from 30 to 40 now, its China president, Norbert Ducrot, said.
Sales in the United States, the firm's biggest market, average 120 to 150 aircraft per year.
"The China market is very small with a big potential," Ducrot said. "I am pretty sure by 2020, China will be the first market for Airbus Helicopters.
"Before, [our customers] were mostly state companies, police and fire fighters, but now we can see the emergence of civil private helicopter operators."
China simplified flight approval procedures for private aircraft late last year, but the fledgling market for helicopters and small aircraft has been constrained by the military's control of low altitude airspace.
A dearth of small airports, maintenance facilities, mechanics and pilots have also hampered the sector's growth.
Ducrot said he expected demand for helicopters and small aircraft to pick up gradually when China opened up its low altitude airspace.
As infrastructure improves and the military opens up more airspace, Ducrot estimates there will be 50,000 helicopters in China over the next 30 years. There are only about 330 helicopters in operation in China, including Hong Kong.
Other small plane makers are also expanding to cash in on China's growth potential.
Textron's Cessna Aircraft and Embraer have started assembling business jets in China, while Gulfstream Aerospace Corp and Dassault Falcon are adding service and maintenance centres there.
Airbus is the market leader in China. In July, it announced an order for 123 helicopters to three privately owned Chinese general aviation companies, a deal that would double the size of its fleet over the next five years. In March, it signed an agreement with Aivcopter, a long-time government-owned partner, to jointly produce 1,000 EC175 models.
Industry observers say more than 200 general aviation firms, mostly privately owned, are lining up for regulatory approval in China.