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Air transport in China is mushrooming, leading to a demand for more pilots from airlines – which in turn is fuelling a drive to find more capacity at flying schools

Pilot training schools in China are more than doubling their capacity and expanding as fast as they can to meet soaring demand for pilots from airlines.

This year only about 600 students will graduate from schools certificated by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to train commercial airline pilots. But within three years four schools plan to graduate about 1,700 pilots annually.

The dramatic increase in pilot production is spurred by a requirement for roughly 2,000 new airline pilots a year over the next several years. In the current year the need to hire at least 1,000 pilots is forcing Chinese carriers to employ expatriates and send some cadets overseas despite a preference to hire and train locally.

China’s largest and oldest flight training academy, the government-owned Civil Aviation Flight University of China (CAFUC), has traditionally trained 500 pilots annually across its five campuses. But for its new freshmen class, 1,000 pilot students were enrolled in July.

The China Southern Western Australia Flying College, established in Perth in 1994 by China Southern Airlines, has until now produced 120 pilots a year. But this year it began doubling its intake and from next year 250 will graduate annually.

The pilot shortage also has prompted two new schools to open and several companies throughout China are trying to establish new academies, some with potential overseas partners. The Beijing PanAm International Aviation Academy began training an initial batch of 32 pilots in February and Flying Dragon plans to start training an intake of 13 pilots in September at a new facility in Shandong province. From 2008, Beijing PanAm and Flying Dragon expect to train 300 and 100-200 new pilots a year, respectively.

The rapid expansion of flying school capacities in China has spurred interest from foreign manufacturers and training companies. Manufacturers see a need for hundreds of new trainers, while training companies want to help the Chinese set up new schools. Several academies in Australasia, Europe and North America are considering following the lead of Florida-based Pan Am International Flight Academy and establishing its Chinese affiliate. Lufthansa subsidiary InterCockpit has partnered with CAFUC to train students in Frankfurt and may help Hainan Airlines set up a school. Canada’s CAE and other foreign companies are looking for Chinese partners interested in establishing schools.

On the manufacturing side, Diamond Aircraft has quickly captured a large share of the market by selling 64 trainers in China over the past year. Cessna also recently sold CAFUC six Citation CJ1s and is the frontrunner in a contest at CAFUC for 42 new primary trainers.

To meet growing local demand, Diamond says it plans to open a factory in China in October with an undisclosed local partner. The new factory will initially produce trainers for Beijing PanAm and Flying Dragon, both of which have selected Diamond to supply their initial fleets.

Last year Beijing PanAm ordered 41 DA40 Diamond Stars, 14 of which have been delivered. The school has also ordered 19 twin-engined DA42 Twin Stars, the first of which is to be delivered by the end of July. Last month it also received the first of 11 simulators acquired from Diamond Elite Simulation Industries.

More capacity

General manager of marketing Hamish Wang says all 60 of Beijing PanAm’s Diamond Stars and Twin Stars will be delivered by November 2007, giving the school the capacity to train 300 pilots annually. Beijing PanAm now has 91 students, including a group of 60 cadets who enrolled in May and have not yet begun the flying portion of their course. The school plans to have 210 students by the end of this year.

The Beijing PanAm course begins with English language training, followed by ground school. After the first portion of the flying phase, students earn a private pilot’s licence (PPL). A commercial pilot’s licence (CPL) is issued at the conclusion of the course, following instrument, twin-engine and advanced training.

“The first group of students have just finished their first solo and will soon have their PPLs,” says Wang.

The Twin Stars will be used for instrument and twin-engine training, which will start in September or October. Wang says Beijing PanAm will also acquire Beechcraft King Air turboprops or Cessna CitationJets for the advanced training portion of the CPL course. Beijing PanAm plans to select an advanced trainer by year-end and will initially acquire two aircraft.

CAFUC has begun using its new Cessna CJ1 to supplement indigenous Chinese aircraft previously used for advanced training. Over the past three months it has taken delivery of four CJ1s and will take two more by September. “The CJ1 will enhance our flight-training qualities and ensure our flight safety,” says CAFUC foreign affairs director Gong Jianyu.

In addition, the school this year has doubled its Piper Seminole fleet, used for twin-engine and instrument training, from six to 12 aircraft. Gong says CAFUC also plans to acquire 42 new single-engined trainers for delivery in 2007. The new trainers will replace and supplement a fleet of about 70 EADS Socata TB20/200s. Gong says the Cessna 172 is favourite, “but for other companies there is a chance”.

Gong says CAFUC – also known as the CAAC Flying College – is able to double its output not by adding aircraft, but by operating its fleet more intensively. “We will cancel summer and winter vacations if necessary for our flight training,” he says.

China Southern Western Australia Flying College is also doubling its capacity without adding any aircraft, by improving fleet utilisation. General manager Frank Duan says the school is improving productivity of its 35 Grob G115s, five Piper Seneca Vs and two Citation IIs by using the aircraft on weekends and evenings.

“Before we didn’t have many students and the training cycle was slower,” says Duan. “Now we have more students, we expedite the cycle and fly seven days a week and more hours a day.”

More students

By accelerating its CPL course, China Southern will be able to graduate students in 18 months compared with 12 months previously. By increasing aircraft utilisation, it is able to enrol 50 students in each class, compared with 30 previously.

The larger classes began this year and as a result the school now has 200 students. Enrolment will peak at 250 next year. China Southern may later expand its Perth campus and acquire more aircraft to support a further increase in pilot production beyond 250 a year, but currently there are no plans. Its students are awarded an Australian CPL after about 300h of training and convert their CPL to CAAC standards once they return to China for type training.

China Southern’s students are also required to study at Beijing Aeronautics and Aerospace University before proceeding to Perth for flight training. They study in Beijing for one to two years, depending on previous academic experience.

CAFUC’s flying course takes 18 months or 250-280h to complete, but it takes two to four years to graduate from the university. Students entering from high school or secondary school undergo a four-year course, while students with a higher-level degree can graduate after two years.

Beijing PanAm plans to graduate its students after 250h, at which point they join their new employer and go through type training. The school already has been contracted by China Eastern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, Sichuan Airlines and start-up United Eagle Airlines to train its cadets. The students are selected by a carrier before enrolment and the airline covers the entire cost of the training. The school helps the airlines find qualified students by visiting universities and promoting pilot careers to seniors, who preferably are about to earn degrees in English, engineering or information technology.

“We have to find pilots. It’s not like taxi drivers you can find everywhere,” says Wang.

Flying Dragon says it has also partnered several Chinese airlines and expects to graduate its first class of 13 students after they complete an 18-month course. The school is likely to be used by Hainan Airlines, which has tentatively agreed, pending approval of its board, to acquire a majority stake in Flying Dragon from government-owned manufacturer Harbin Aircraft Industry. Flying Dragon is a general aviation operator and is looking to open an academy to meet the needs of Hainan and other potential airline customers.

Flying Dragon has taken delivery of four DA40s in anticipation of launching its CPL course in September. The company says it aims to have 100-200 students enrolled by the end of 2007, but is not yet planning to acquire additional aircraft.

All Chinese carriers use CAFUC, but the three major flag carriers – Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern – have the largest contracts with the government-run school. Most of the smaller independent carriers send a handful or two of students annually to CAFUC.

Schools abroad

Chinese carriers also regularly send their students to private schools in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Several schools have seen their enrolment of Chinese students increase dramatically over the last few years. Within the past few years several Chinese carriers have also hired expatriates for the first time. Industry sources say none of the big three carriers has hired foreign pilots, but several private carriers including Hainan Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines and Sichuan Airlines have so far employed at least 100. The carriers have appointed recruitment firms such as New Zealand-based Rishworth Aviation to help find experienced captains as well as instructor pilots to help train new first officers.

“There is a shortage,” says Rishworth managing director Peter Rishworth. “We’re trying to get involved long term.”

For the airlines, the pilot schools can not expand fast enough. Air China, China Eastern and China Southern will each need almost 500 new pilots over the next 12 months, but it will take years for the schools to graduate their freshmen. “It’s difficult for our training department to anticipate,” says China Southern’s Duan. “It’s hard to predict four years ahead.”

There is already talk of further expansion at CAFUC to train as many as 1,500 pilots annually, but Gong says it would be difficult to increase production further: “The space is limited. You can’t train students beyond the space and sky.”

China could use more schools, but sources warn it takes at least three years for a new one to be established and graduate its first pilot. Foreign companies are also finding it difficult to negotiate with potential local partners, while Chinese companies find the application procedure and financing difficult to overcome.

Foreign pilot training schools typically do not want to invest in China, but are more interested in selling their course materials and expertise. For example, Pan Am International Flying Academy has agreed to provide materials and branding to its new affiliate outside Beijing, but does not have any ownership stake. Beijing PanAm is primarily funded by an undisclosed aircraft leasing company. Industry sources say several Chinese companies are interested in setting up franchises of other renowned flight schools such as Delta Connection Academy, but are struggling to secure capital and CAAC approvals.

Hainan Airlines has been looking to establish its own school, but also has had difficulty securing regulatory approvals and finding a suitable foreign partner. Industry sources say the airline is aiming to open a school in 2007 with the help of a European partner, probably Lufthansa, and its new tie-up with Flying Dragon does not mean it will drop its goal of becoming the second Chinese carrier with its own ab initio pilot training programme.

With the establishment of Beijing PanAm, Flying Dragon and potentially other new schools, there is increasingly intense competition for business from airlines, which if given a choice will train at CAFUC because it is subsidised by the government. However, the long-term outlook for private pilot training schools in China is bright. As well as meeting booming demand within China, some may also train students for airlines in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, where there is no space for training, but similar pilot shortages.

“We need to meet [Chinese airline] requirements first,” says Beijing PanAm’s Wang. “The next stage will be to promote to countries next to China.”

BRENDAN SOBIE/SINGAPORE

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