China loosens military control over airspace

Small commercial flights will no longer need the approval of the PLA, making it quicker and easier to use a private plane on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 9:04am

Zipping between mainland cities on a private plane or helicopter should become quicker and easier after the government said it was loosening the military's grip over airspace.

From next month, small commercial flights will no longer have to get People's Liberation Army approval for flight plans. They will only need permission from the regional branch of the civil aviation administration.

This should cut the waiting time for permission to take off from several days to a few hours, giving a boost to the nascent private aviation sector.

The change - which applies only to general aviation and will not affect scheduled flights - was announced by the PLA and the Civil Aviation Administration.

"Some people regard it as a ground-breaking measure. Others regard it as the dawn of China's general aviation business. It is good news for everyone," said Wu Qing, general sales manager with GALink Aviation, a general aviation service provider in Changsha , Hunan .

About 1,000 planes were registered for general aviation last year, compared with more than 220,000 in the United States.

Certain restrictions will remain. Flights that cross borders, including into Hong Kong, or go through sensitive areas, will stay under the control of military air traffic authorities. Flights operated by holders of foreign passports will still need PLA approval.

"It is now very difficult to use a private plane because you don't know if the military will approve a flight," Wu said. "They never give a reason for a rejection or approval. Civilian air authorities are much more transparent and professional. They can approve a flight plan within hours."

Wu Zhen, an operational director with Jinggong General Aviation, a training and equipment supplier in Xian, Shaanxi, said the change could cut up to 70 per cent of the paperwork for flight approvals.

But he warned the military was long accustomed to running the mainland's airspace. "It will take five to 10 years to get rid of the military's influence over civilian flights. If a small plane crashes, they may take it as an excuse to tighten control again. It is too early to be optimistic."

Professor Gao Yuanyang, who studies air traffic at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said the change needed to be fleshed out. Authorities should release a map showing the air corridors to remain under the military's control, he said, and the air transportation law, which gives the military priority, should be amended.

"Without the map, civilian pilots will not have any true freedom to fly; and without the legal amendment, civilian air authorities cannot deal with the military on an equal footing," he said.

Gao said the supporting air traffic control network would need to grow to ensure a boom in flights did not threaten safety.

Despite strict control of the mainland's air space, illegal private jets are still from time to time spotted, causing headaches for air traffic controllers.