China is home of the world’s second largest aviation market in terms of passengers carried after the United States — and it got that way really fast. According to the World Bank, Chinese airlines carried 659,629,070 passengers (compared to 926,737,00 in the U.S.) in 2019 up from 436,183,969 in 2015 and about 1,000,000 in 1975. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 the number of air passengers in China was 417,255,485, compared to 369,501,000 in the U.S. so at that time China was No. 1 in the world.

In 1909, six years after the Wright Brothers, China achieved its first successful flight. Air travel was still something of a novelty in China in the 2000s. Up until that time only government officials and the very rich could afford it. Civil aviation underwent tremendous development during the 1980s. Domestic and international air service was greatly increased. Even today the People’s Liberation Army keep tight control of Chinese air space and discourages private flights.As of the early 2010s, China had fewer than 300 business jets, of which only 30 were legal, compared to more than 11,000 in the U.S.

National air transport system
number of registered air carriers: 56 (2020)
inventory of registered aircraft operated by air carriers: 2,890
annual passenger traffic on registered air carriers: 436,183,969, compared to 889,022,000 in the U.S. (2018)
annual freight traffic on registered air carriers: 611,439,830 (2018) mt-km Civil aircraft registration country code prefix: B [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), also called the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China, was established as a government agency in 1949 to operate China’s commercial air fleet. In 1988 CAAC’s operational fleet was transferred to new, semiautonomous airlines and has served since as a regulatory agency. The CAAC operates all domestic and international air services. Most cities are served by domestic flights, and a number of large cities such Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Kunming, Chengdu and Xiamen have international service. Some provincial and urban authorities operate intercity airlines that carry passengers and freight. Passengers carried: 417,255,840, compared to 369,501,000 in the U.S. in 2020. Per capita for China: 0.313 (compared to 2.717 per capita in the United States and 0 in Somalia. Passenger miles in 2004: 77.35 billion (compared 1 billion in Tunisia to 480 billion in the United States).[Source: World Bank By Map ; Library of Congress]

China is the biggest aircraft buyer in Asia and maybe the world. In 2014 Boeing forecast Chinese carriers would need nearly 6,000 new planes valued at $780 billion over the next 20 years, accounting for around 16 percent of world demand and nearly half of Asia's. China’s huge market accounts for a quarter of Airbus and Boeing deliveries in a normal year. Purchases were less during the Covid-19 pandemic. Boeing purchased were affected protracted trade tensions with the United States. [Source: AFP, June 3, 2015; CNBC July 1, 2022]

China has quickly assembled one of the largest airline fleets in the world. As of 2020, China had 6,795 civil aircraft, an increase of 270 airplanes from the previous year. In 2021, Boeing said Chinese airlines will need 8700 new aircraft for a total of $1.47 trillion by 2040. According to statistics reported by the financial magazine Caixin in 2006 the number of civil aircraft was forecast to reach 2,600 by 2015, up from about 1,500 in 2005. At that time it was estimated that to meet demand, China's domestic airlines would need to buy an estimated 4,330 new aircraft valued at $480 billion over the next two decades. China ordered around 1,100 new transport aircraft and 1,000 general aviation aircraft between 2011 and 2015. According to civil aviation officials. A total of 145 new aircraft were delivered in 2005.

Airlines List and Links China Highlights ; Air China Air China , China Eastern Airlines Fly China Eastern , and China Southern Airlines Fly China Southern ; Small Airlines: Hainan Airlines hnair , Shanghai Airlines Shanghai Air ; and Shenzhen Airlines Shenzhen Air

Air Transportation in China in the 1980s

Civil aviation underwent tremendous development during the 1980s. Domestic and international air service was greatly increased. In 1985 the transportation system handled 2.7 billion tons of goods. Of this, civil airlines handled 195,000 tons. The 1985 volume of passenger traffic was 428 billion passenger-kilometers. Of this, air traffic, for 11.7 billion passenger-kilometers.

20080313-china airline stewaress in 19090 mandarin collar u wash.jpg
Air China stewaedess in 1990
Ownership and control of the different elements of the transportation system varied according to their roles and their importance in the national economy. The national airline was run by the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC). Regional airlines were run by provinciallevel and municipal authorities.

Transportation was designated a top priority in the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1986-90). Air passenger traffic was to be increased by an average of 14.5 percent annually over the 5-year period, and air transportation operations were to be decentralized. Existing airports were to be upgraded and new ones built.*

By 1987 China had more than 229,000 kilometers of domestic air routes and more than 94,000 kilometers of international air routes. The more than 9 million passengers and 102,000 tons of freight traffic represented a 40 percent growth over the previous year. The air fleet consisted of about 175 aircraft and smaller turboprop transports. CAAC had 274 air routes, including 33 international flights to 28 cities in 23 countries, such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagasaki, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Frankfurt, East Berlin, Zurich, Moscow, Istanbul, Manila, Bangkok, Singapore, Sydney, and Hong Kong. Almost 200 domestic air routes connected such major cities as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Kunming, Chengdu, and Xi'an, as well as a number of smaller cities. The government had bilateral air service agreements with more than 40 countries and working relations with approximately 386 foreign airline companies. CAAC also provided air service for agriculture, forestry, communications, and scientific research.

The staff of CAAC was estimated at approximately 50,000 in the 1980s. The administration operated three training colleges to educate future airline personnel. In a bid to improve CAAC's services, more ticket offices were opened in major cities for domestic and international flights.*

Growth of Air Travel in China

China has been home of the world's fastest-growing aviation market for the last couple of decades. Air passenger traffic in China has expand by around 8 to 12 percent annually over the last 20 years. The country built dozens of new airports in the 2000s and 2010s. In 2009, China became the world’s largest purchaser of passenger jetliners, spending twice as much as the U.S. did on passenger planes. Until then China was the world’s second largest aviation market, in terms of planes purchased, after the United States.

The number of air travelers rose from 3.4 million in 1980 to 16 million in 1990 to nearly 50 million in 1995 to 67.2 million in 2000 to 85.9 million in 2002 to 120 million in 2004 to 160 million in 2006 (compared to 658 million in the United States). China’s airlines carried 20 percent more people in 2006 than they did in 2005, and carried 16 percent more — reaching 185 million passenger journeys — in 2007, stretching the already overstretched ground support system. In 1988, 95 percent of the air passenger in China were foreigners. By the late 2000s, 95 percent were Chinese. Air travel demand doubled every four years in the 2000s and 2010s China and is expected to expand fivefold between 2008 and 2028.

As a result of the rapidly expanding civil aviation industry, by 2005 China had 489 airports of all types and sizes in operation, 389 of which had paved runways and 89 of which had runways of 3,047 meters or shorter. There also were 30 heliports, an increasingly used type of facility. With the additional airports came a proliferation of airlines. In 2002 the government merged the nine largest airlines into three regional groups based in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, respectively: Air China, China Eastern Airlines, and China Southern Airlines, which operate most of China’s external flights. By 2005 these three had been joined by six other major airlines: Hainan Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, Shandong Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, and Sichuan Airlines. Together, these nine airlines had a combined fleet of some 860 aircraft, mostly Boeing from the United States and Airbus from France. To meet growing demands for passenger and cargo capacity, in 2005 these airlines significantly expanded their fleets with orders placed for additional Boeing and Airbus aircraft expected to be delivered by 2010. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]

According to Associated Press: “Foreign carriers are forging steadily closer ties with Chinese airlines to gain a bigger share of China's air travel market, which is growing strongly while travel in Europe and North America is leveling off. In exchange, Chinese carriers get access to experience and management skills. China's economic growth is slowing but tourism spending is rising as communist leaders encourage growth of service businesses in an effort to reduce reliance on heavy industry. Delta Airlines has a partnership China Eastern Airlines, China second largest airlines. United Airlines has a partnership with Air China, the third major Chinese government-owned airline. Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airlines owns 18 percent of Air China. American Airlines has a relationship with China Southern. See Below. [Source: Joe McDonald, Associated Press, March 28, 2017]


China’s Infrastructure Can’t Keep Pace with Air Travel Growth

The airlines and the industry as whole is having a hard time keeping up. In many cases, especially on busy routes like the one between Beijing and Shanghai, air space capacity falls far short of demand and the concentration of flights is too high. To deal with the overstretched ground support system problem China’s aviation authority announced plans in 2007 tor reducing flights to overstretched Beijing airport and banned the founding of new airlines until 2010. The arrival of 500,000 passengers by air for the Olympics was a challenge for Beijing

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Flights in China “are delayed for pretty much the same reason highways are backed up: Explosive economic growth has produced traffic faster than infrastructure has improved. Since 2003, the number of airline passengers in China has nearly quadrupled, to 319 million in 2012. Meanwhile, airspace is limited by the People's Liberation Army, which controls most of the skies above China. In a 2011 interview with state news media, Li Jiaxiang, head of CAAC revealed that the military controlled 80 percent of the airspace. In the U.S., roughly 17 percent is federally controlled.

“Air traffic controllers in China also err on the side of caution, the result of strict regulations imposed after a spate of accidents in the early 1990s. Flights are spaced about six to nine nautical miles apart, which means 20 to 40 planes can land on a runway every hour (as opposed to 60 in the United States).

Money Spent on Vanity Projects That Use Air Infrastructure

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics, China spent more than $3.5 billion building its showcase Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport. The glass-atrium vanity project, the world's second-largest airport terminal, made Beijing look rich but did nothing to alleviate the congestion in the air. "It is like building a bigger parking lot. It didn't expand the airspace, so things only got worse," said Xu Hongjun, a professor at the Civil Aviation University of China.

“Xu said it would require a decision at the highest level of the Chinese Communist Party — probably from President Xi Jinping, who is also head of the military — to prioritize civil aviation over military use. "Airspace is a sensitive topic. You have to figure out how to divide the airspace and balance national security with economic growth, and that has to be done at the highest level of government," Xu said.

“With its vast distances, mountains and gorges, China is better suited for travel by air than rail. Under a five-year plan released in 2011, China said it would invest $230 billion to construct 55 airports. A new airport, as yet unnamed but expected to be the world's largest, is planned for Beijing's Daxing neighborhood. For the time being, more passengers have meant more delays and frustration.

New Beijing terminal

Chinese Airport Director Executed

In August 2009, China executed Li Peiyin, the former head of a huge state-owned airport holding company, six months after he was convicted on bribery and embezzlement charges involving more than $14.6 million. Li had been the chairman and general manager of Capital Airports Holding Company, a $14.6 billion conglomerate that runs 30 airports in nine Chinese provinces, including Beijing’s much-acclaimed new international airport. [Source: Michael Wines and Mark McDonald New York Times, August 7, 2009]

Xinhua said that Li was executed in Jinan, a Yellow River city in eastern China’s Shandong Province. At his peak, Li, 60, supervised a 38,000-employee behemoth that not only served 30 percent of the nation’s air passenger traffic, but had also launched forays into insurance, hotels, real estate and tourism.

In February 2009, a court in Jinan ruled that he had embezzled $12.1 million from the company over a three-year period ending in 2000, and had accepted an additional $3.9 million in bribes during an eight-year period starting in 1995. Most of the bribes received by Li — reportedly for loans or loan guarantees — came from Qin Hui, owner of the popular Paradise nightclub located in the luxury Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing, according to Shanghai Daily. The court said that Li’s actions had caused the nation severe financial losses.

Tight Control of China’s Airspace

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “China’s airspace is the jealously guarded province of its military, which parcels out flying rights grudgingly, even to the nation’s booming commercial airline sector. Lengthy airport delays — often unexplained, but generally attributed to the preeminence of air force jets on maneuvers — are a staple of commercial Chinese flights.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 18, 2011]

“Private aircraft occupy the lowest rung of the flight ladder. Pilots in training, and those who just want to go up for the view, can fly on reasonably short notice in tightly circumscribed areas, just a few kilometers across, at a handful of airports. But anyone seeking to fly to another airstrip must negotiate a bureaucratic thicket, filing flight plans with the military and China’s civil aviation agency not only at the departure point, but at the arrival point and all points in between.”

Mr. Cao, the Beijing flight company owner, said the state meteorological agency also must be consulted. Within a few days — or a week, or 10 days, depending on whom one believes — the authorities will respond with an O.K. Or not.” “Only if the civil aviation agency and the air force agree — and also the individual offices of the air force and civil aviation along the route agree — can you get permission,” he said. “And if any one of them doesn’t give you a license, you can’t make the flight. And it’s only if the weather is good.”

The thicket can be impenetrable. Another Wenzhou hei fei helicopter pilot, Zhu Songbin, bought a small airplane last year in Guangzhou, where his flight school is based, and sought clearance to fly it to Wenzhou, about 570 miles to the northwest. Then he discovered that merely applying for permission to fly would cost thousands of dollars and require an interagency meeting with no guarantee of approval. Mr. Zhu said he contemplated making a long black flight home, then thought better of it. “I was afraid they’d revoke my license if they caught me,” he said.” So he gave up. “I just sold the plane to somebody else,” he said.

“The promising news, Mr. Cao and others say, is that the government is moving to change the rules. Officials proposed last November to allow general-aviation aircraft to fly the skies below 4,000 meters, or about 13,125 feet. The first step, an experiment allowing planes to fly below 1,000 meters, or 3,280 feet, will be tried out in 2011 and 2012 in two provinces, Guangdong and Heilongjiang. Already, investors are gearing up for what they believe will be a lucrative market in small planes. In February, a subsidiary of a state-owned Chinese company bought Cirrus Industries, a Minnesota manufacturer of small aircraft. The boom may have to wait a while: under current plans, Chinese airspace will not be fully open to private planes until 2020.

Airports in China

total: 507 (2021), 13th in the world, many of them are military airports
Heliports: 39 (2021)
Airports - with paved runways: total: 510
over 3,047 meters: 87
2,438 to 3,047 meters: 187
1,524 to 2,437 meters: 109
914 to 1,523 meters: 43
under 914 meters: 84 (2021)
Airports - with unpaved runways
total: 23
over 3,047 meters: 2
2,438 to 3,047 meters: 0
1,524 to 2,437 meters: 1
914 to 1,523 meters: 7
under 914 meters: 13 (2021)
[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

The 30 biggest airports in China
Name (IATA abbreviation) — City — Airlines — Destinations
Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) — Beijing — 81 — 206
Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) — Shanghai — 65 — 152
Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN) — Guangzhou — 56 — 150
Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport (XMN) — Xiamen — 39 — 72
Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport (HGH) — Hangzhou — 39 — 72
Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport (CKG) — Chongqing — 39 — 89
Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU) — Chengdu — 39 — 108
Kunming Changshui International Airport (KMG) — Kunming — 36 — 95
Nanjing Lukou Airport (NKG) — Nanjing — 32 — 54
Changsha Huanghua International Airport (CSX) — Changsha — 32 — 70
Xi'an Xianyang International Airport (XIY) — Xi'an — 32 — 86
Liuting Airport (TAO) — Qingdao — 31 — 54
Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport (SZX) — Shenzhen — 31 — 86
Wuhan Tianhe International Airport (WUH) — Wuhan — 30 — 66
Taoxian Airport (SHE) — Shenyang — 29 — 62
Ningbo Lishe International Airport (NGB) — Ningbo — 27 — 38
Taiping Airport (HRB) — Harbin — 27 — 58
Tianjin Binhai International Airport (TSN) — Tianjin — 27 — 52
Guilin Liangjiang International Airport (KWL) — Guilin City — 27 — 41
Fuzhou Changle International Airport (FOC) — Fuzhou — 26 — 47
Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA) — Shanghai — 26 — 67
Ürümqi Diwopu International Airport (URC) — Ürümqi — 26 — 55
Zhoushuizi Airport (DLC) — Dalian — 26 — 59
Nanning Wuxu Airport (NNG) — Nanning — 24 — 44
Sanya Phoenix International Airport (SYX) — Sanya — 24 — 41
Longdongbao Airport (KWE) — Guiyang — 22 — 48
Zhengzhou Xinzheng International Airport (CGO) — Zhengzhou — 22 — 55
Haikou Meilan International Airport (HAK) — Haikou — 22 — 38
Yaoqiang Airport (TNA) — Jinan — 21 — 41
Taiyuan Wusu Airport (TYN) — Taiyuan — 19 — 47 [Source:]

In the 1980s the central government increased its investment in airport construction, and some local governments also granted special funds for such projects. Lhasa Airport in Xizang, Jiamusi Airport in Heilongjiang Province, and Kashi and Yining airports in Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region were expanded, and new airports were under construction in Xi'an, Luoyang, and Shenzhen. An investment of -Y500 million was planned for expanding runways and building new terminals and other airport facilities. In 1986 China had more than ninety civilian airports, of which eight could accommodate Boeing 747s and thirty-two could accommodate Boeing 737s and Tridents. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987 *]

As of December 2017, there were 229 commercial airports in China. About 40 commercial airports were built in the 2000s. In isolated places airports provide vital links to the outside world. Even with all these airports air traffic is dominated by a handful of large city airports, The top eight airports handle about half of all passenger traffic while the top three — in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou — handle half of all cargo traffic. Analysts estimated that two thirds of China’s airports are losing money. In 2008, the Chinese government announced it planned to spend $62 billion to build 97 additional airports by 2020 to boost the total number of airports to 240.

Major airports include the Capital International Airport, located 27 kilometers northeast of central Beijing; two in Shanghai under the control of the Shanghai Airport Authority: Hongqiao International Airport, which is located 13 kilometers west of central Shanghai, and Pudong International Airport, which is located 30 kilometers southeast of central Shanghai; and the Baiyun International Airport, which opened in August 2004 and is located 28 kilometers from downtown Guangzhou. Other major airports are located at Chengdu, Dalian, Hangzhou, Harbin, Hohhot, Kunming, Qingdao, Shenyang, Tianjin, Urumqi, Xiamen, and Xi’an. Additionally, the Hong Kong International Airport, located at Chek Lap Kok on Lantau Island 34 kilometers northwest of Hong Kong Island.

There are five major airports within 130 kilometers (80 miles) of Guangzhou: in Guangzhou, Hong Kong. Macau, Shenzhen and Zhuhai. Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou opened in August 2004. Just 80 miles away from Hong Kong, it cost $2.4 billion and has two runways and will be able to handle 25 million passengers a year by 2010.

China Opens World's Highest Civilian Airport in 2013

In September 2013, China opened the world's highest civilian airport, Daocheng airport, in Garzi, — in a heavily ethnic Tibetan part of Sichuan. The airport is 4,411 meters (14,472 feet) above sea level, overtaking Qamdo airport in Tibet, which is situated at 4,334 meters above sea level, as the highest airport in world. Located in a restive and remote Tibetan region of southwestern Sichuan province, the airport reduce the travel time from the provincial capital from two days to a little more than one hour. [Source: Reuters, September 16, 2013]

Reuters reported: “The official Xinhua news agency said flights would initially connect with Chengdu, the provincial capital, otherwise a two-day bus trip away. Flights to cities including Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing will begin at a later date. The 1.58 billion yuan ($258 million) airport, designed to handle 280,000 passengers a year, will help open up the nearby Yading Nature Reserve to tourism, Xinhua added, referring to an area renowned for its untouched natural beauty.

“China has embarked upon a multi-billion-dollar program in recent years to revamp old airports and build new ones, especially in the remote west, as a way of boosting the economy. Some of these airports have been located in Tibetan regions, whose population chafes at Chinese political control, and often have a dual military purpose so troops can be bought in quickly during periods of unrest. Garzi has been the scene of numerous self-immolation protests against Chinese rule in the last three years or so and remains under tight security.

Image Sources: 1) Nolls China website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2022

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