July 2014 was a bad month for users of commercial aviation in eastern China. There were lots of delays and cancelled flights along with reminders that the Chinese Air Force still controls 80 percent of Chinese air space and frequently shuts down commercial use of large sections of it for military exercises. Nearly a thousand flights leaving Shanghai were cancelled in July and over a 100,000 travelers were forced to wait, or find another way to get where they were going.
As Chinese commercial aviation continues its rapid growth the percentage of flights that are delayed increases. Already Chinese commercial has the worse on-time record in the world. China’s booming commercial aviation industry has long been pressuring the government to force the military to release more air space for commercial use. There has not been much progress. Until the 1990s 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 only 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. Soon, perhaps by next year. Maybe.
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 (3,200 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.
Meanwhile, the Chinese commercial aviation fleet currently consists of some 2,000 aircraft. That’s more than double what was available in 2005, 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 nearly a hundred aircraft) is actually owned by the Chinese air force, and can use military air space.
By law, China can still order all these aircraft into military service. As a practical matter, only China United Airline 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.