China plane 'supermarket' flies under restrictions

BEIJING (AFP) - Gleaming new helicopters and small planes worth millions of dollars are on show at Beijing's first "aircraft supermarket", but some wealthy private buyers will still face curbs when taking to the skies.

"Selling airplanes in China is as easy as selling cabbages," said Mr Zhang Changyi, a manager at the "supermarket", standing beside an imported French helicopter.

The dealership opened this week in a cluster of buildings surrounded by farmland on the edge of the capital, offering a range of small aircraft aimed at business executives and priced at up to 50 million yuan (S$9.9 million).

Mr Zhang hopes to profit from the growing ranks of wealthy Chinese aspiring to own private aircraft, even though airspace restrictions mean some customers will be flying in the face of the law.

"We've sold three aircraft in the last four days," he said, walking through a warehouse filled with gliders and light aeroplanes.

"Our ideal customers are the heads of listed companies."

Private plane ownership in China is still miniscule compared to countries like the US. State media reported only 150 such aircraft registered in 2011, despite an estimated one million millionaires as a result of the nation's economic boom.

Facilities at the dealership are still basic despite the buyers' wealth.

Instead of a high-tech control tower, the grassy runway - a recently converted field - is flanked by a tractor and several rabbit hutches.

Overseas aviation companies are itching to break into the emerging market, Mr Zhang added. "I get calls from foreign air firms almost every day, they are desperate to sell in China," he said.

Chinese airspace is controlled by the military and only open to private fliers who pass through a complex approval system, although some buyers are happy to risk fines of 10,000 to 100,000 yuan for violating the rules.

Reports of "black flights", as the clandestine trips are known in Chinese media, reveal a wealthy elite paying out for the privilege of zooming to work in a private plane or helicopter.

"If I'm fined, then I'll pay up," said Mr Dai Xiang, a 43-year-old businessman from the south-western province of Sichuan, after buying a two-seater Slovenian "Pipistrel" plane.

He expects the days of "black flights" to end soon.

"Regulations on low-altitude flying are becoming more relaxed... and I hope that continues," he told AFP.

As an initial move authorities will ease a ban on low-altitude flying in seven cities starting this year, state media reported.

Mr Zhang said his customers can fly inside a four-kilometre area surrounding the brokerage - run by a Beijing flying club - at heights of up to 500 metres, under an agreement with a local air force base.

"We all know that the skies need to be opened up, but some departments are reluctant," said a pilot at the school wearing a dark uniform and black aviator sunglasses, who asked not to be named because of his military connections.

"Things are becoming more open, it's an unstoppable trend," he added, before climbing into a pristine green helicopter, sending dust flying and rabbit ears twitching as he took to the air for a test flight.

There are also other challenges, such as imported aircraft rarely coming with Chinese documentation.

"The instruction manual is in Russian," the pilot said of a helicopter recently arrived from Ukraine. "We don't understand a word of it."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.