In other countries, such poorly served routes would offer opportunities for other carriers to move in with high-frequency regional jet services, but in China the routes are regulated by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, which restricts competition, partly because it is so mindful of the skills shortage. So the airlines can and do serve the routes with larger aircraft operating low-frequency services.
Independent airline consultant David Li points out that Chinese airspace, as well as skilled workers, is in limited supply, so larger aircraft are favored. Moreover, recent growth in commercial aviation here has been focused on adding flights to underserved markets, he says. “Regional markets were not prioritized, as they might have taken more time to develop.”
A further factor militating against widespread use of regional airliners is that the industry is training people mainly for larger aircraft. Yet another is strong preference among many Chinese people, including pilots and technicians, to live in big cities.
“The major difficulty of regional aviation is high cost per seat-kilometer and thin profits,” says Tianjin Airlines President Xin Di. “In the main, our experience is that the CAAC and local government give a certain level of policy and monetary support [to regional aviation].”
Part of the answer is not to be an entirely regional airline, at all. Tianjin Airlines “has configured its fleet appropriately by introducing A320s. By integrating regional and trunkline operations, we give customers more choices and at the same time match ourselves more closely to the market and increase our competitiveness.”
Although regional airlines should always have limited opportunities in developing countries, because of their high cost per seat and the willingness of travelers to take slow ground transport instead, Li believes that tailoring the service to customer demands can overcome that problem.
In working their way into the Chinese market, Embraer and Bombardier may encounter some competition from the ARJ21. Comac and supplier Avic will lobby the central government to force airlines to use the type. Avic is also a competitor in the market.