The skies over Asia will be even busier in the future if the new chairman of the Asia Business Aviation Association has his way, despite the potential threat air travel presents to the world’s climate.
Wu Zhendong would like to see a 25 per cent growth in the number of corporate jets taking to the air, and wants the region’s airports to get on board with his vision.
He said his members’ businesses could get a boost if major airports opened more runway slots for corporate jets, and reduced the fees charged.
According to Wu, the industry’s difficulties stem from airports prioritising commercial flights, which has prompted some users to shift to cheaper cost-effective charter flights, buy second-hand aircraft, and even fly first class on commercial flights.
Wu said the problem for his members, which he felt personally as the head of general aviation services firm, Avion Pacific, was how to tackle these thorny issues.
“Access is the biggest problem with limited slots. So are high landing and ground handling fees. If those two issues were resolved, there would be growth of at least 25 per cent,” Wu said, after granting the Post his first interview.
But for Wu and his members, their industry is under even greater scrutiny for its effects on climate change. The revival of those concerns have arisen thanks to an environmental movement in Europe known as flygskam, which means flight shame in Swedish, and calls for people to take trains rather than planes for their journeys if possible.
Commercial flights are responsible for 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions, and with air travel continually expanding that figure is likely to grow, in spite of efforts to build more fuel-efficient aircraft and develop biofuels.
Wu said when it comes to business travel it is about saving time and money, as opposed to mitigating the potential of any damage to the environment.
“Businesspeople can fly to at least two cities, have the meeting and then come home the same day,” he said. “Often the commercial airlines wouldn’t have that flexibility.”
The 57-year-old takes the helm of the organisation for the next two years with the aim of expanding the organisation’s membership of almost 150, enabling it to have more influence and a bigger voice on key aviation issues across the region.
A graduate in English Language and Literature from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Wu’s career in the aviation industry started when he was assigned a job working in a helicopter business run by the Civil Aviation Administration of China. After studying in America, he started Avion in 1993.
One of Wu’s goals now is to work more closely with governments so members can gain more access at congested airports, and to work on reducing fees for landing and using the services at airports.
Given how full airports like Hong Kong are, business jets are given the lowest priority for runway slots.
Wu said friends gave up their own jets “after a couple of years”, and with restricted access to preferred take-off times, using a private plane had become less attractive.
Laying out the challenges ahead, he added: “More people just take first class on a commercial flight. It's depressing seeing all these people use their jets less and sell them. We have got to resolve the slots issue and seek more infrastructure.”
Max Buirski, chairman of business aviation services company Asian Sky Group, agreed with Wu’s observations.
“Infrastructure is always an issue, but the economic environment is going to be a more important driver of demand in the short term than landing fees or airport access.” he said.
“But those issues will become more significant factors over the long-term and must be addressed before the business aviation market in the Asia-Pacific can reach its full potential.”
Wu also said the industry was suffering from the US-China trade war and a slowing Chinese economy.
While the trade war had not materially dented business travel in the region, the US was riding on a more robust economic growth, in spite of the dispute between two of the world’s largest economies.
Wu said operators and owners were tending to shun importing jets from America, whereas Buirski disputed that assessment.
“For the moment buyers are still willing to buy an American product if that’s the model they want, and in general it seems to be a wait-and-see approach,” Buirski said. “If it drags on or gets worse, then we could see a shift toward more European aircraft types.”
The growth of business jets in the Asia-Pacific region has continually slowed, falling to just 1.4 per cent last year to 1,201 planes based in the region. It is forecast to rebound to 2 per cent in 2019, according to research compiled by Buirski’s company.