China’s booming commercial aviation industry has been growing even faster than the economy. It’s also been growing faster than the ability of China to create new commercial aviation pilots. For the last decade China has been hiring more and more foreign pilots, who get paid much more (often over $200,000 a year) than Chinese pilots. This creates morale problems among Chinese pilots, despite strenuous efforts to train more Chinese as pilots. In the next decade the shortage is expected to grow to nearly 20,000 pilots. That means more foreigners. China has tried to establish more flying schools but has encountered resistance from the military, which has the final say in these matters. This has meant that the airlines and Chinese commercial aircraft manufacturers have had to go to the top, and that takes time, to get the senior leadership to persuade the generals to be more cooperative.
A major part of the problem is the fact that the Chinese military still controls most Chinese air space and is hostile to private and commercial aviation and the training of civilians as pilots. This makes it difficult for citizens to become pilots, and there is growing pressure on the military to release more air space for commercial use. Two decades ago all Chinese air space was under the control of the military. Gradually, to allow commercial aviation to operate, more and more air space was opened to commercial use. Currently, about a quarter of Chinese air space is restricted to military use. Some of that restricted air space causes many commercial flights to go out of their way, or makes it difficult for commercial airliners to avoid bad weather. So the military has agreed to surrender the most troublesome (to civil aviation) bits of air space. This is proceeding slowly.
There is another problem here. As Chinese aircraft factories churn out more commercial helicopters and small airplanes, there is a curious absence of these aircraft in the Chinese skies. China doesn't lack for billionaires and businesses that can afford this form of transportation. What China does lack is permission for private citizens to fly. Until moments like this, it's easy to forget that China is still a communist police state. The military controls the skies, and getting permission to fly private aircraft is extremely difficult. Very wealthy, well-connected, and brave individuals ignore the law and fly anyway. Their attitude is that they have enough lawyers, cash, and connections to deal with the police. Of course, there's always the risk that some air force commander will just decide you are a threat and blow you out of the sky.
But under pressure from its growing business class, China is opening up the currently unfriendly skies to private aviation. It will take years (and some large cash gifts) to pry control from the military, but soon many areas will be open to private aircraft flying at low altitude (under 4,000 meters/13,122 feet). Aircraft, usually helicopters, flying at under 1,000 meters (3,100 feet) won't even have to file flight plans. The rules and regulations are being worked out now, and some areas are to be opened up by next year.
Meanwhile, the Chinese commercial aviation fleet currently consists of some 2,000 aircraft. That’s more than double what was available eight years ago, when the fleet could carry 24,000 tons of cargo and 133,000 people. This has now more than doubled, because larger aircraft are being used. China has over two dozen airlines, and one (China United Airlines, with over 50 large commercial aircraft) is actually owned by the Chinese air force and can use military air space. By 2030, the size of the commercial fleet will be more than 4,000 aircraft and the average size will be higher as well. By then the global commercial fleet will be over 30,000 aircraft.
By law, China can still order all these aircraft into military service. As a practical matter, only China United Airline regularly sends it airliners off to train with the troops once or twice a year. Actually, within the air force, China United Airlines is known as the 34th Air Division. Most of the airline employees are active duty or reserve air force personnel. The Chinese military was supposed to sell off their huge business empire in the late 1990s, but only about half the assets were disposed of.