The general aviation aircraft industry is becoming the next driver of the Chinese economy, according to officials and experts.
"China's economy has had different engines boosting its development in different periods. At first, it was home appliances, then it was cars, but now the general aviation industry's time is coming," said Jin Qiansheng, an official with the Yanliang National Aviation High-tech Industrial Base in Xi'an, capital city of northwest Shaanxi Province.
Jin made the remarks at the International General Aviation Convention in Xi'an that ended earlier this week. A total of 35 investment contracts totaling 9.6 billion yuan (1.5 billion U.S.dollars) were clinched during the five-day convention.
China's civil aviation authorities have estimated that by 2020 the country will need more than 9,000 aircraft in the general aviation field. Related industries, led by the booming general aviation industry, will add a huge market valued about 60 billion yuan.
General aviation refers to flights other than military and scheduled airline and regular cargo flights, both private and commercial.
"The general aviation industry has a longer industrial chain which could create more job opportunities and government revenue compared to the car and real estate industries," said Gao Yuanyang, a professor with the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
"In the long run, its contribution to China's economy will grow significantly -- just like it has in the United States, which currently has 230,000 general aviation aircraft contributing 150 billion U.S. dollars to its economy every year," Gao added.
The main task facing the industry is the exploration of its full potential, said Xia Qunlin, vice president of China National Helicopter Corporation.
"It is estimated that a mature general aviation industry can add a growth of five to eight percent to the GDP. The economic scale of China's general aviation industry reached about 12 billion yuan in 2010, but there is still a large gap from reaching the goal of the industry," said Xia.
"Now it's time to start this engine," said Meng Xiangkai, president of the General Airplane Company of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC).
In December last year, China's State Council and the Central Military Commission jointly released an order to open part of the country's low-altitude airspace to promote the general aviation sector, including the purchase and use of private planes.
The Chinese government also said in its 12th Five-Year Plan for 2011-2015 period that it will promote the general aviation industry's development, reform the airspace management system and increase the efficiency of the allocation and utilization of airspace resources.
Nearly 20 provinces and regions are making plans for the general aviation industry, and 14 of them have put developing the general aviation industry into their 12th Five-Year plans, according to Jin Junhao, an official with the industry regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).
"It's not surprising that local governments are doing this, if you take into consideration the industry's growing contribution to local economies," said Lin Mingyang, director of the China branch of Textron, a company known for its Bell helicopters and Cessna aircraft.
In the Commonwealth of Virginia, 57 general aviation airports generate 5,200 jobs and economic activity worth about 730 million U.S. dollars, Lin said, citing an example from the United States.
"With government support, more investment and a better understanding of general aviation from the public, the industry will boom in the next 20 years," said Jin.