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Online Extra

How Will China Address Its Business Pilot Shortage?

Aviation in China is booming, and demand for new pilots may soon exceed supply, according to a 2011 report from the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC). The government organization’s five-year plan predicts a doubling of the civil aviation fleet, which means a surge in demand for new pilots: At least 16,000 will be needed by 2015. With an average of 2,000 pilots graduating annually from China’s seven pilot-training institutes, meeting that number may prove challenging.

The good news is the Chinese are committed to keeping pace with demand, and not just to support the airlines. The country’s five-year plan for civil aviation development makes specific commitments to expanding general aviation. A sizeable Chinese delegation visited U.S. aviation agencies last September, in part to learn how to manage such rapid growth. That’s a big step forward considering private aircraft ownership was forbidden in China until 2003.

“The Chinese have an interest in building the [business aviation] infrastructure and in getting it right,“ says Roger Whyte, a resident Asia business aviation expert and special counsel to NBAA. That includes lifting flight restrictions and expanding the number of accessible airports and full-service fixed base operators.

The business jet fleet in China is modest (about 200 aircraft), but is growing rapidly. Whyte estimates China will need 500 to 1,000 new pilots to match that anticipated fleet growth in the country’s business jet sector. “There’s just no clear picture where they’ll come from,“ he says.

The Chinese are actively recruiting university graduates to become pilots, but that push is to fill airline jobs.

“I think the solution to the shortage of business jet pilots has to be examined in conjunction with the CAAC,“ says Whyte. “They have good aviation schools in China. If they had a curriculum that would prepare pilots for business aviation specifically, that would help a great deal.“

Meanwhile, China continues to invest in general aviation through acquisitions such as Cirrus Aircraft’s July merger with China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (CAIGA) after the U.S. firm sold trainers to the Civil Aviation Flight University of China. CAIGA also purchased Epic Aviation and Continental Engines, Whyte notes. Diamond Aircraft is producing aircraft in China, and Shenyang Aircraft Corporation is building the 162 Skycatcher there for Cessna. AVIC has announced its desire to design and build business jets. All of these aircraft will be able to operate in China’s newly opened lower-level airspace.

For the moment, however, Whyte says, “There is no formal training program or career path that exists in China to develop pilots for business aviation.“ But there is plenty of opportunity.

“China will need pilots, mechanics and other aviation personnel to support this fast-growing market,“ says Melissa Rudinger, senior vice president of government affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). She was in Beijing last September to participate in the AOPA China conference. “I believe this creates great business opportunities for foreign pilots and flight training professionals.“

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