The expected arrival of thousands of Chinese pilot training students over the next decade is driving the current Australian pilot training school frenzy – and the punters are out for blood, Michael Sainsbury reports.

China is targeting Australian airfields as it ramps up its pilot training efforts, with an increase of thousands of students per year expected over the next decade. The majority of them look like being Chinese, in the face of a global pilot shortage driven by Asia’s aviation boom. That will see hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in airport facilities around the country.

Most recently, Hainan Airlines, China’s No 4 airline via its parent company HNA Group, lodged a bid that has been shrouded in secrecy via its partner Virgin Australia, to operate a major pilot school at Tamworth, in central New South Wales. Virgin has said it is awaiting the outcome of a decision for the project by the Foreign Investment Review Board which has been assessing the application since March.

The Virgin/HNA bid’s backers, through one of the Chinese group’s subsidiary companies Australian International Aviation College (AIAC) and the opaque Beijing-based Winbright Group were recently revealed by See here, here and here. AIAC already operates a pilot training school from Port Macquarie Airport on the NSW Mid-North Coast. A recent visit by this publication to AIAC’s extensive facilities at Port Macquarie revealed Chinese pilots in training in 13 single propeller Diamond Class planes. AIAC chief executive Kevin McMurtrie did not return multiple calls.

AIAC had planned to expand to nearby Kempsey Airport and had lodged an $18 million development application that failed to pass council approvals, after the company did not complete a range of requirements including an environmental impact study.

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An unnamed Chinese airline has been reported to be in discussions with the airport in Devonport, Tasmania for a pilot training school. “The discussions so far have indicated the potential to train both international and domestic pilots at the school”, a state government spokesperson told The Advocate newspaper.” The office of the coordinator-general has had discussions with possible flight schools regarding the potential for operating from Devonport Airport”.

Tasmania’s Launceston airport has also been pushing to ramp up operations as a flight training centre and was in discussions with both Virgin and Qantas.

A typical example is Moorabbin Airport’s 2015 Master Plan that estimates aircraft movements there will grow from around 230,000 to an estimated 500,000 at some point between 2040 and 2060 and was surrounded by community backlash during its approval process. At present 800 students are trained there annually; that number is expected to reach up to 2000 by 2035. Add up the numbers of the big suburban general aviation airports forecasts and it’s easy to get to one million, and more extra flights within 10-15 years.

Jandakot Airport’s 2017 Master Plan said that 255,000 movements per annum over the previous last three years could expect to reach a theoretical operating capacity of 460,000 fixed wing and 66,000 helicopter movements per annum.

There are politics beyond the local councils involved. It is worth noting that former National Party leader Barnaby Joyce, signed off on the Parafield plan when Infrastructure Minister. Joyce has given contradictory answers on what he knew and when about Virgin’s Chinese partners for the Tamworth school outside the largest two in his New England electorate. The National MP Darren Chester now holds the portfolio.

Other airports such as Alice Springs, that bid for but missed out on the Virgin tender, are now seeking other players to established flight schools on their premises.

It’s not just commercial flights but recreational aviation as well that is booming in China and is the focus of other flight school projects. The country’s government opened up its skies to recreational aircraft for the first time, an acknowledgement of the also booming numbers of wealthy people keen to fly their own planes — or hire private pilots to fly for them.

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In 2018, a new company called Sports Aviation Flight College Australia Ltd attempted to secure the Frog’s Hollow airstrip between Bega and Merimbula on the far south coast of NSW for a $10 million re-development aimed squarely at recreation Chinese flyers.

“With this market still in its infancy, there is a fast growing need for recreational flight training with limited local expertise accessible in China. Utilising Australia’s strong reputation in aviation”, said Sports Aviation Flight College Australia created to service this growing need for recreational flight training for Chinese students, the company’s website says.

But the plans hit a roadblock with angry local residents banding together to halt the project. Still, the promoters are determined to try again, telling to check back in few weeks as to their latest plans.

In other places, it has been a lack of finance that has thwarted China focused flight schools which were pushed by Australia’s trade arm Austrade during 2017. A plan for investment worth at Glen Innes airport has been put on ice after its promoter failed to find a Chinese investor.
Still, there are some signs that the Foreign Investment Review Board, for so long weak on China knowledge and expertise as well as potential threats posed by state run companies and the murky grey area between state-owned and apparently private companies where Beijing can have a significant degree of control over private corporations despite not apparently owning them.

In 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed former Australian Security Intelligence Organisation chief David Irvine as chairman of FIRB, keen to avoid a repeat of the 2015 deal approved by Tony Abbott’s government to hand Chinese company Shandong Landbridge Group a 99 year lease to the Port of Darwin. Chinese billionaire Ye Cheng, who has close ties to the Communist Party of China, controls Landbridge.

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Since Irvine’s appointment a number of major deals involving Chinese companies to take over Australian groups have been knocked back.
“David has become very bearish on China and is in close contact with senior bureaucrats at Defence and the Office of National Intelligence, a high level spy group that sits in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet,” senior Canberra insider who asked not to be named said “They all see China very much as a threat and FIRB has become very security focused.”

Some observers see the trend of effective Chinese control over a growing range airport facilities as well as increasing numbers of pilots-in-waiting flying daily in Australia as part of a similar national security threat as the leasing of the Darwin Port.

Other sources connected to Australia intelligence agencies, which would are not able to reveal their names, said that anti Chinese involvement with Australian aviation infrastructure raised a security “red flag.”

Swinburne University Professor John Fitzgerald, one of Australia’s top China experts, told that HNA’s ownership structure is “so opaque that some other market regulators have acted to prevent its involvement in acquisitions and mergers”.

“It is closely bound up with the CCP party state and acts on the party’s instructions. “The firm and its private foundation are heavily involved in ‘donations’ for political influence in the USA and internationally,” he said.

While none of this bodes too well for the Virgin/NHA bid for the Tamworth flight school, at a broader level a coordinated approach to both foreign investment in airline infrastructure and community concerns over noise is surely needed.


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