Chinese contributions to global aviation history include the inventions of the first flying object, the kite, and, years later, the rocket. Despite these technological achievements, China's airline industry has fallen behind its international competitors.
Air travel volumes are expected to peak within twenty years, so China is looking to increase its capacity by building its own large aircraft. At the start of May 2017, the first large Chinese-made passenger jet C919 undertook its maiden flight marking a key milestone for the country.
With China on the verge of a new era in its civilian airline history, we have taken a look at the development of China's aviation history and its major fliers.
Before 1950, there were only three airlines operating in the Republic of China (ROC): Civil Air Transport and ROC joint ventures with Pan American World Airways and Lufthansa. When the People's Republic was founded in 1949, there were only 36 airports in operation and most could not handle large aircraft.
Before the end of the 1970s and Deng Xiaoping's policy of modernisation in 1980, air travel in China was relatively rare. The country had only one airline, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), and airports and airspace were controlled by the military.
China has an unimpressive history when it comes to building large jetliners. The only previous attempt was the spectacularly unsuccessful Shanghai Y-10 programme. Development work on the Y-10 began in 1970, but the first prototype didn't fly until 1980, by which time the original design was severely outdated.
The development process was plagued by political interference, and only three planes were ever built, of which only one actually flew. By the time the Y-10 programme was scrapped altogether, it had cost the Chinese state a staggering 537 million yuan and yielded no valuable results of any kind.
Technical equipment, such as radars, was also primitive, which meant that most aircraft were grounded during bad weather. It wasn't until Deng Xiaoping gave the civilian arm of government reins of air travel that the country's air travel industry really took off.
Existing airports were rapidly expanded and renovated, and about 40 new ones were built. Today there are dozens of different airlines operating in China, including companies specialising in cargo.
China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) is currently an aviation holdings company that owns a majority in Air China, China's largest commercial airline. Originally China Airways, CNAC began as a major airline in the Republic of China. It was founded in 1929 and run by the American tycoon, Clement Keys.
The company ceased flight operations after the Communists came into power in 1949. At that point, the Civil Aviation Administration of China's (CAAC) air services became China's only airline.
China Airlines, founded in 1959, was the first airline with shares completely held by the ROC government and China Southwest Airlines, founded in 1987, was the first major airline to abide by the principle of separation of responsibility between administration and enterprise—it merged into Air China in 2002.
Shanghai Airlines, established in 1985, was China's first commercial airline, responsible for its own operational profits and losses. Hainan Airlines Company Limited became the first Chinese civil airline company to be listed in both the A and B stock markets. It was founded in 1993.
In 2005, the CAAC declared that it would open China's aviation sector and encourage private and foreign investment in Chinese airlines. The policy was announced at a ceremony marking the debut flight of Okay Airways, China's first privately run airline.
The policy change was a move to promote the development of the private economy, end state monopoly in the sector, as well as to make air travel available to more Chinese. The shift helped meet growing demand and competition from foreign airlines in accordance with China's WTO commitments.
According to Chinese analysts, private airlines are making money because of their low prices and stringent cost control. Private airlines also give themselves an edge by operating on regional routes that their bigger rivals do not cover.
Analysts find that the prospects of China's airline industry are good, but that it is hard to see real profits in the short term. While China's new private airlines have brought healthy competition to the sector, the companies do face problems that the state-owned companies do not have to struggle with.
The number one challenge is cost-control, followed by problems involving human resources, logistics services and fleet expansion. About 80 percent of the total costs of operating a private airline arise from aircraft leasing or purchasing fees, maintenance and repair costs, and most importantly, jet fuel.
About 40 percent of airlines' total costs arise from fuel. The airlines are also faced with a shortage of qualified pilots because the country's booming aviation industry is taking off faster than the country can train pilots.
China's state-owned airlines are presently facing pressure to improve their marketing, management and service to compete in the market with foreign and private airlines.
Some analysts have even been questioning the state-owned airlines' willingness to cut costs after there were reports of one of the airlines renewing the entire staff's uniforms while the company was taking severe losses.
Analysts say that private airlines are presently still too small to have a significant impact on China's aviation market. Despite their strong start, the skies are still dominated by state-owned giants such as Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines.
It is also predicted that China will be the world’s second largest aviation market after the US by 2034. For the competing airlines, the battle for the eastern skies has only just begun.