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Private planes still waiting to take off

A red four-seater aircraft on show in Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province, draws crowds of people who huddle to pose for a photo with it.

The Cirrus SR22 GTS, owned by a businessman in Shaanxi Province, is the first private plane in northwest China, an area inhabited by 100 million people.

Chen Yilong, a real estate tycoon from Weinan City, bought the U.S.-made aircraft for more than 5 million yuan (732,440 U.S. dollars) early this year.

Chen and his aircraft were a highlight at the 2009 China International General Aviation Convention that gathered in Xi'an from Oct. 17 to 19.

Many wage earners who could never dream of owning their own aircraft basked in Chen's reflected glory.

"Even though I myself cannot afford a private aircraft, it's good to know other northwesterners can," said Xi'an resident Zhang Xiaoqiang. "Maybe in a decade or two, I'll own one, too. Who knows? I couldn't afford a car 10 years ago -- now I've got one."

Northwest China, covering Shaanxi, Gansu and Qinghai provinces and Ningxia Hui and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions, lags far behind the central and eastern regions in terms of economic growth.

For the new rich like Chen, however, owning a plane is one thing, but flying it is quite another. "I might not be able to fly for five years. I'm prepared for that," said Chen, 50.

China's low-altitude airspace is controlled by the Air Force and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). Private flights need approval, each time, and the procedure takes at least half a day, making a private flight a less than enticing event.

"To avoid such restrictions, you need to buy high-performance aircraft that can easily reach high-altitudes. But they sell for at least 10 million U.S. dollars each, plus running costs of 5 million yuan a year," said Li He, regional sales manager of Avion Pacific Limited.

Last year, Li's company sold four such luxury planes to private buyers on the Chinese mainland, at more than 100 million yuan each, he said.

Inadequate ground facilities were another factor that keeps China's private plane sales and general aviation market sluggish, Li said.

"China has only 160 airports nationwide, all in big cities, compared with 19,100 general aviation airports across the United States. This is too inconvenient for private jet owners," he said.

Aiming high 

It is not just the rich who are dreaming of private planes.

In a remote village in Gansu Province, farmer Zhang Yuxiang keeps trying to make his own, out of a Santana car engine, three motorcycle tires and propellers blades he shaped out of wood.

While most of Zhang's flight trials have failed, Xu Bin, a farmer from the eastern Zhejiang Province, flew 20 minutes on a home-made plane three years ago. Xu's plane, made out of old car seats, home-made wings and an engine he bought over the Internet, cost 30,000 yuan.

But some daredevil, self-made pilots have ended up killing themselves, forcing the government to tighten controls over such attempts. In 2007, a student was denied approval to test fly his self-built plane.

Yet in general, China has loosened control of low-altitude airspace use for private airplanes. This year, the authorities made Guangdong Province and the northeast region trial sites for opening the use of airspace below 1,000 meters.

If successful, this will lead to the gradual opening of low-level airspace to private planes across the country.

"It's big step," said Professor Wu Tongshui, of China Civil Aviation University. "A complicated project, too, because you've got to build a complete ground radar network and a huge team of air traffic controllers to ensure flight safety."

Experts estimate China's private planes will increase, from 11 in 2006 to 2,000 in 2020.

The CAAC was encouraging overseas investment in general aviation companies and supporting individual ownership of private jets, said Liu Wanming, deputy director of CAAC's transport department, at the Xi'an convention Monday.