China is Getting Easier for Business Aviation But Flight Planning Expertise Still Makes Big Difference
The new status symbol for China's ultra rich businessmen: a private jet. But before this fad can truly take off, authorities have to loosen up strict regulations governing the domestic airspace.
by CURT EPSTEIN
With business aviation in China continuing its upward trajectory, life is getting somewhat more straightforward for this class of aircraft operators according to those most closely involved in trying to help them, namely flight planning and support companies. Though flights into and within the vast country still remain somewhat complicated due largely to regulatory and technical differences with most other regions of the world, according the major flight planning providers there have been recent signs of improvement.
"It has gradually improved over the years so it is better than it was even five, 10 years ago," said Nancy Pierce, a business consultant with Jeppesen. "Having more and more aircraft coming into China has certainly helped them with understanding the purpose of business travel." One of the key differences in preparing for a flight into the Peoples' Republic starts with the landing permit application. "The application is pretty extensive with the information they require in order to be considered for a landing permit," said Matt Pahl, Rockwell Collins's manager of flight operation services (Booth P705), "more so than in most parts of the world."
Among the necessary details: entry and exit points, arrival dates and times, airway routes, full crew and passenger manifests–including dates of birth, passport numbers and expiration dates–broken down by leg of travel, and sponsor contact information. The sponsor who will be responsible for the flight's passengers will also be required to submit a letter to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) detailing why the flight is visiting the country.
"It's not like climbing Mount Everest, but it does take a little bit of time," said Pahl, who noted one recent improvement: for the last five years, multinational corporations have been able to list their in-country office as the sponsor of their visit, whereas prior to that sponsors were almost necessarily a government agency. In cases of multi-leg flights, CAAC may require an operator to submit a sponsor letter for each stop on the trip.
Once the application is submitted, it is reviewed by various agencies in China, including the CAAC, and the military air traffic control, which owns the airspace and will have final say on the selection of a proper airway. "Bear in mind that many airways in China are dedicated to local airline operations and are not permitted for business aircraft use," said Sheng "Jimmy" Young, Universal Weather and Aviation's country manager in China. Young added that the mandated routings for business aviation can often have an effect on altitude and fuel burn. "Airway structure and restrictions prevent operators from maximizing the aircraft's true performance capability."
Since the designation of airways can vary from year to year, it is crucial for flight planners to be current on the most recent designations. Once the routing is approved, the operator should examine it closely to make sure that it has not been changed by authorities as operators are expected to fly their approved route precisely. Requests to use a certain airport in Shanghai, for example, are not always honored, especially during peak congestion times, and flights can be assigned to a non-preferred destination airport.
While the amount of lead time requested by each flight planner to obtain a permit varies, they all say the earlier the application is submitted in advance of the flight, the better. While flight-planning companies can occasionally expedite rush requests, operators should plan on allowing the CAAC at least a week to process the permit application.
Yet, submitting a landing permit application far in advance can result in other problems due to the rigidity of the Chinese regulations. "Obviously business [aircraft] operators like to change their schedules a lot, which is why the VIPs have the aircraft to start with," said Pierce. "That's doesn't sit too well with the Chinese authorities, so we certainly recommend that customers don't change their plans at all."
While she acknowledges that unavoidable changes in travel dates, itineraries and passenger manifests do occur, Pierce cautioned operators to keep them to a minimum. "If we keep going to civil air to revise a permit over and over, they can get to their breaking point," potentially resulting in the denial of the permit.
Another important point is that every person on the aircraft must have a valid, proper visa. While citizens of several countries, including Russia, Japan, Australia, Britain and Germany can obtain visas upon arrival in some of China's largest cities, everyone else is required to have one prior to boarding the airplane or face fines or even immediate deportation on arrival. Universal's Young advises crew members to make sure they have the correct and valid visa type. Crewmembers require type "C" visas, which in China are only valid for seven days unless an extension is obtained. Multi-entry and annual crew visas are also available. Young noted that crewmembers entering China commercially (such as a relief crew, or those picking up or delivering an aircraft) may, in fact, require more than one type of visa.
As is the case in much of Asia, business aviation operations in China are expensive, with fees for larger aircraft easily totaling upward $7,000, among them the notorious "compensation fee," of approximately $3,000 (U.S.). "They are assessing a fee because you are carrying passengers, even if it's your own corporate executives on the plane, because you are taking away revenue from their local airline," said Jeppesen's Pierce. "They're saying you could be flying Air China, or China Airlines, and you're bringing your own airplane. That's the rationale, like it or not." Air navigation fees add approximately $0.44 cents per kilometer for large aircraft.
Another source of unexpected fees could come if an operator is planning to visit a more remote location, rather than Bejing, Shanghai, Shenzhen or one of China's other large cities, for example. CAAC will require that a local navigator be in the cockpit of the aircraft for that leg of the trip, and the operator will liable for–depending on where he can come aboard the aircraft–his flights to meet the airplane, his meals and lodging.
In the end, operators can expect to receive at least two invoices upon departure: one from the ground handler and a civil aviation invoice from Tong Da, the billing center that is authorized by the CAAC to collect fees.
At some of China's more congested airports, business aviation arrivals and departures may be restricted to certain time periods or assigned landing slots. In most cases, if an operator is able to schedule the flight to arrive outside of the stated busy hours there should be little difficulty, according to the flight planners. Based on that congestion, airplanes headed to China should carry their own tow bars. "Some of the busier airports do require that you have a tow bar on board," said Pahl. "You may or may not need it depending on the parking situation. You can power out of some of the stands and with others you will have to be towed out before you can start the engines."
In terms of ground handling, in recent years new Western-style FBOs have appeared at Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, and more are planned. "It was a big step to get FBOs like that up in the last four years or so," said Matt York, a handler relations supervisor with Jeppesen (Booth H607). "Its seems like a long time for what we are used to, but for China that was quite large." At airports currently lacking an FBO, a good ground handler should request the use of a VIP room, noted York. "I really don't look at it as being any big headache if there isn't an FBO. They know how to treat business aircraft," he said. "Yes, you will be processed through a terminal, but they do have a separate VIP service to make sure it is more private." The major flight planners will generally ensure that either one of their in-country employees or a representative from one of their ground-handling partners will meet customer flights to help expedite services such customs, lavatory cleaning and fueling.
Catering at most of China's major airports is not a problem, according to the flight planners, and the ground handler should be able to contract with an airline caterer. In smaller cities, provisioning can usually be arranged through a local hotel, if the facilities at the airport don't measure up.
Most of the airports in China do not accept credit cards, which could prove an inconvenience for fueling payments according to Universal (Booth H608). Operators must have either a pre-arranged contract fuel agreement or pay cash.
Maintenance infrastructure is still a work in progress in many areas of China and, unless the situation is one of questionable airworthiness, most foreign operators tend to fly to better-equipped providers in Hong Kong or Singapore. "Some customers will travel with a mechanic when they go to China," said Pahl. "They may bring some common spares on the airplane because they know they are going to a region where it is a little more difficult to get service."
Overall, the consensus is that while China is making strides, there are still some changes to be made. "Up until 15 to 20 years ago there wasn't a whole lot of business aviation traffic in China," said Pahl. "There has been a continual education process, a continual recognition by the government authorities in particular that they need to change their procedures so that they have a better way to handle the general and business aviation community, and that's really what's happened."