When things get moving in China, they can move quickly. Until about four years ago, Chinese demand for business aviation was one of those things that was forever coming, forever predicted, but never a reality.
Then, when orders from China finally began picking up, around 2008, the market revealed its immaturity: almost all the buyers wanted large aircraft. With no business aviation culture, the only people who thought of flying in business aircraft were extremely rich individuals and top managers of huge companies.
Moreover, with the Chinese emphasis on face, executives of various manufacturers privately said that, to many buyers, showing a big, luxurious cabin to friends and associates was an important motivation for getting the aircraft.
Now Gulfstream sees early signs of change.
“Initially, it was almost all top end,” Gulfstream President Larry Flynn said in a recent interview. “But now the mid [-size] aircraft are picking up.” Related to that is a sign that the market is growing firmer roots in the utility, as distinct from the showiness, of business aviation. “They are becoming more need-buyers than want-buyers,” says Flynn. “You are looking at what your needs are: passenger loads, range, city-pairs.” That does not mean companies such as Gulfstream,and will sell fewer of their large aircraft. More likely, sales of medium-size aircraft will just grow faster, although China is still probably years away from wanting many light and very light private jets, and even further from demanding propeller business aircraft, the hallmark of a deeply ingrained business aviation culture.
Another feature of the Chinese market that Gulfstream has discovered is the strong power of brands. The company’s brand is among the best known worldwide and, therefore, in China. Feeling their way in unfamiliar markets, Chinese buyers of almost any foreign products show a strong bias toward the very top brands, to the frustration of companies whose products are excellent but do not have household names.
In Gulfstream’s case, it may help that its Mandarin name, Wanliu, is an easily remembered, literal translation that sounds rather pleasant to many Chinese ears.
Hong Kong used to be the dominant Chinese market for all business jet makers. Gulfstream now counts 33 of its aircraft there, compared with 43 in mainland China. Reinforcing success, the company opened an office in Beijing in December. Also, “we have been putting more and more people, product support and parts warehouses into” mainland China, says Flynn.
Chinese fighter builder Avic Aviation Techniques, an Avic unit formerly known as Avic Defense, last year sought proposals from all major business aircraft manufacturers to support it in moving into the business aviation market. It wants production of a current aircraft moved to its Chengdu works and joint development of a second aircraft to be built there.
It is difficult to see much incentive for most foreign companies to help Avic Aviation Techniques in this plan, and Gulfstream appears to have been one of the first to make clear that it was not interested.
Asked to comment on that, Flynn suggests that the company has little interest in joint developments. “We are inwardly focused,” he says, adding, “There is not a worldwide need for more aircraft plants.” The ambitions of Avic Aviation Techniques and sibling company Avic General Aircraft (or Caiga) reflect another common phenomenon in China. Seeing large-scale demand in China for something, in this case, business aircraft, the government is keen to ensure that local manufacturers address that market.