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 Patti Waldmeir
It will come as no surprise that rich Chinese have developed a taste these days for private jets. It is a short step, in China, from Gucci to Gulfstream: according to a survey of China's richest people, released by the Hurun report at the Asian Business Aviation Conference Asian Business Aviation Conference in Shanghai, 13 per cent of Chinese with personal assets over Rmb100m plan to buy a corporate jet.
China had only 32 business jets registered in 2008, but that number rose to 132 by last year, according to state-owned China Daily. Beijing's latest five year plan calls for developing the industry, and Cessna, one of the world's biggest makers of business jets, recently signed agreements with Chinese partners to build business jets in Chengdu. The aviation industry is salivating at the opportunities presented by the notion of rich Chinese looking for the convenience – not to mention that sheer bragging value – of owning one's own personal airplane.
But VistaJet, the ultra-luxurious Swiss business aviation company, is confident that there will be plenty of rich Chinese who think owning a jet is just too much trouble. VistaJet promises on-demand access to the company's 31 near-new Bombardier aircraft, under a subscription model which VistaJet says makes much better financial sense than owning a jet for anyone who flies less than 500 hours per year. VistaJet today announced a memorandum of understanding with Beijing Airlines (the private jet subsidiary of Air China) that will allow it to base some of those aircraft in China, and eventually fly between domestic Chinese destinations.
Thomas Flohr, VistaJet chairman and founder, knows that deciding to buy a jet, especially in China, is not always a purely rational decision. Reason not the need: ultra high net worth Chinese have given "need" an all new meaning. But he is sure there will still be plenty of value-conscious business people around – even in China – who want access to a jet without having to pay for pilots, mechanics and downtime.
Flohr said his company is already doing good business flying the Chinese to Africa and Africans to China – often to remote locations that could not conveniently be reached by commercial airlines. "As an entrepreneur, you cannot afford to spend up to three days flying commercially between Harbin and Khartoum," he said, adding "nor are you going to want to fly on some of the airlines that will get you there". And even if some Chinese entrepreneurs are tempted to buy a jet rather than a block of hours on VistaJet, there will still be plenty of wives and kids, grandmas and grandpas of entrepreneurs who need moving from place to place – and as Flohr put it, first class on Air China will no longer cut it once they have tasted private aviation.