Abace 2012 visitors line up to view a Cessna Grand Caravan on display. (Photo: Matt Thurber)
Abace 2012 visitors line up to view a Cessna Grand Caravan on display. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

A Great New Beginning at Abace 2012

This year’s Asian Business Aviation Conference & Exhibition (ABACE) has been a real eye-opener for a Westerner whose last visit to China was in 2003. Shanghai, where Abace 2012 is being held (it ends on March 29) at host airport Hongqiao International, is a beautiful and huge city. There is no convention center at the airport, but Shanghai Hawker Pacific Business Aviation Service Centre, the airport’s fabulous FBO, is plenty big enough to accommodate ABACE. The show is large enough to attract a good number of visitors from China and Asian countries and exhibitors serious about tackling this promising market. NBAA and its Asian counterpart, the Asian Business Aviation Association, as well as the Shanghai Airport Authority also deserve credit for putting on a first-class show.

Being in China for the ABACE show has taught me a few things. The main lesson is that any company that is serious about China will have to figure out how to interact in Chinese. This means either learning the language or hiring people who are expert in Mandarin but also making a commitment to the marketplace. One example of this is websites. You cannot expect a potential Chinese customer to understand your company via your English-only website. Dassault Falcon spent a lot of money and effort developing a Chinese website and it has paid off with serious inquiries and potential sales from new Chinese customers who felt that Dassault really wants their business.

The second lesson is that China will allow business aviation to grow, but not at the speed that we Westerners would wish for or expect. We all know that China lacks general aviation infrastructure and that this is why there are few native Chinese pilots and technicians available to fly and maintain all the business jets that are projected for the China market. But airspace in China remains constrained; you can’t just jump in your airplane and take off. Permission is required, and although the time to obtain a permit has dropped, all flying is tightly controlled. The government has said that it plans to open Chinese airspace, but no one knows what that means, how quickly that will happen and whether pilots will eventually be able to fly with less advance notice. In China, not all airports are available to all airplanes. What works in America, where all airplanes have access to almost every airport in the country, is definitely not the case in China. Will that change? Who knows.

The third lesson is that there is intense interest in general aviation, at least judging from the crowds that attended the ABACE show. While there are few flight schools in China and, apparently, no small flight schools at the local airport, if the authorities ever relax the rules enough, watch out. General aviation in China could grow rapidly if savvy entrepreneurs were allowed to open small flight schools, teach people to fly and rent and sell airplanes and helicopters. And this would go a long way toward solving what all are predicting is a growing lack of qualified aviators.

The fourth lesson is more of a puzzle. Walking the exhibit halls of ABACE 2012, I noticed that there are some missing exhibitors. There was no booth for China’s regulators, the Civil Aviation Administration of China. Nor was there a booth for China’s military, which apparently has control of China’s airspace. Those two organizations, which will have an enormous influence on China’s aviation future—and not just the future of general aviation in China—should have been active participants in ABACE 2012. It would have been a terrific opportunity for the CAAC and the military to share their issues and learn more about general aviation and why and how China’s regulatory framework and airspace can be reworked to welcome general aviation.

So next year, perhaps we’ll see and get to interact with the Chinese authorities. We are friendly and welcoming and I don’t doubt that many ABACE attendees would happily extend an invitation to the Chinese authorities to come visit airports in the U.S. and Europe to see how general aviation can not only thrive but also bring economic benefits to any community.