Taking Off

The United States and China have forged a mutually beneficial partnership in aviation.

Atop the roof of China's airports construction division in Beijing is a statue of a dragon curled around a pillar, poised as if ready to take flight. That dragon-and the empty sky above it-represents China's vast ambitions for its aviation system and the challenges the country faces as it seeks to open military-controlled airspace for civilian use, build and certify its own regional aircraft, and construct 97 new airports in the next 12 years to cope with increasing business and passenger demands.

With that ambition and those challenges, the Federal Aviation Administration has found an opportunity to share best practices with China's Civil Aviation Administration, build a market for U.S. parts and test-drive some of the modernizations it would like to launch in the United States.

"This is essential to a growing economy like China's," says John J. Hickey, director of FAA's aircraft certification service. "They've been phenomenally successful; they're one of the safest in the world. . . . They want to develop their own airplane-building capacity, which is a far more sophisticated, difficult challenge."

FAA's partnership with its Chinese counterparts began in 1994, when then-FAA administrator David R. Hinson and the CAAC chief exchanged visits. Between 1995 and 1997, the two departments assessed where the Chinese government needed the most assistance with flight standards, and began taking action to address those issues in 1997. In 2003, Chinese and U.S. government officials and aviation business leaders came together to form the Wright Brothers Partnership/U.S.-China Aviation Cooperation Program to improve business opportunities in the two countries and to promote safety in Chinese aviation.

"You have a population base that is just coming into the practice of flying," says former FAA administrator Marion Blakey, who now heads the Arlington, Va.-based Aerospace Industries Association. "It does place a lot of demands on the system, but it's a very exciting market."

The two sides occasionally have miscommunicated. Christopher S. Metts, the senior FAA representative in Beijing, said that at the beginning of his tenure in China, CAAC was in negotiations with Telos Corp. to build a radar manufacturing plant. China intended to model itself after the United States' radar-based air traffic control system, even though FAA considered radar outdated and wanted to replace it with a Global Positioning System. The Chinese didn't realize the Americans were about to embark on a costly effort to start building a GPS-based system. FAA told CAAC officials that they had a rare opportunity to build the most advanced system possible without first having to rely on an antiquated model.

As a result of those conversations, Metts says, China has increased fivefold its development of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast systems, which provide precise positional information, and is testing those systems across the country. FAA has tested a model ADS-B program in Alaska for the past five years, and in August 2007, awarded ITT Corp. a $1.8 billion contract for up to 18 years to build and maintain a nationwide ADS-B system. That system is due to come on line by 2013, but airlines will have seven additional years to equip their planes to receive ADS-B signals. During the transition, the United States will have to juggle two navigation systems.

Another misunderstanding between the countries occurred two years ago when CAAC decided to ban airplanes more than 10 years old from entering China, Hickey says. FAA had to convince CAAC that what was important was not a plane's age, but the inspections regime that maintained its safety.

Now, says Jim Ballough, director of FAA's Flight Standards Service, "they have almost a mirror image of the flight standards we have here."

Some cultural differences can't be resolved by conversations. The People's Liberation Army controls 80 percent of China's airspace, and military and civilian air traffic controllers use different equipment and protocols. Even if the PLA were willing to open up its airspace, it would be difficult for controllers in the different systems to communicate. In addition, China publishes very few airspace charts, so pilots flying into the country have limited information about flight corridors and airports, and few alternatives in case of bad weather. Airplanes almost never fly over major cities in China, because charts are not always available. In some cases, the military will shut down access to its airspace simply to demonstrate its power.

"The military continues to try to remain the force and the influence it once was, but progressively [they] are learning that the economy is becoming more and more the focus of the party," Metts says. "They'll come back and exercise their authority on a given day without warning just to remind everybody that they're still in charge."

But FAA officials say they and their Chinese counterparts are on the same page, drawn together by the inevitable expansion of air travel within China and between China and the United States. Right now, Hickey and Ballough are helping the Chinese develop their standards for certifying China's first homegrown regional jet, ARJ21. The United States produces 45 percent of the plane's parts, a deal that came about, in part, because of the trust and cooperation fostered by the Wright Brothers Partnership.

Metts said the Agriculture Department and India respectively are exploring and launching programs modeled on FAA's efforts with the goal of reaping safety and business dividends.

"[The Chinese] look to us. They trust us. They respond to us when we come forward with project ideas [and] they offer ideas," Metts says. "The synergy, the access to markets that the program has promoted, has been a highlight of the U.S.-China relationship."

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