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Monday, January 13, 2014, 08:55
Ready for take-off?
By TODD BALAZOVIC and WANG WEN

Meeting and capitalizing on the surge in demand for air travel to China presents a complex flight plan for international carriers

Ready for take-off?
(Li Min / China Daily)

As demand for long-haul flights between China and the rest of the world continues to rise, international air carriers are grappling with how they can increase destinations beyond the country's major transportation hubs.

Fueled by the migration of international businesses to cities beyond the big three — Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou — carriers are busy mapping out new routes to facilitate business and leisure travel.

"For a majority of the international carriers, if they want to expand in China, they will have to look beyond the standard places used in the past," says Andrew Herdman, director-general of the Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines.

In the past two years, more than a dozen new routes to second- and third-tier cities have been introduced by the biggest international airlines.

Most recently, British Airways set up a service flying three times a week from London to Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan province, the first new route for the UK airline in China in seven years.

It plans on increasing the service to five times a week this summer, using one of the company's new four Boeing Dreamliner aircrafts.

Qatar Airways also announced a new service to Chengdu in September, targeting the city that serves as one of the centers in the Chinese government's go-west campaign, urging businesses to move from saturated coastal areas.

In June 2013, Finnair started a direct flight three times a week from Helsinki to Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province and home to the Terracotta Warriors.

The nation's oldest international air partner, Lufthansa, which first began flights to China in 1926, was again one of the first to seek out second-tier cities as destinations, establishing routes to Shenyang, capital of the northeastern province of Liaoning, and Qingdao in Shandong province, East China, as early as the summer of 2012.

"As a global airline, we want to grow with the market and we operate flights where we see a substantial demand and future potential. We constantly evaluate our network," says Juerg Christen, Lufthansa's managing director for Greater China.

The long list of new routes from international carriers in China marks a potential shift in how the market is perceived.

Historically, international carriers would connect with the major airports of a country and establish local partnerships to help carry passengers to less frequently visited destinations. "The lesson from history is to focus on particular points and serve them with regular frequency, establish good distribution, use alliance partnerships or code-shares with industry partners to build a feed to and from," Herdman says.

But with China set to be one of the fastest growing markets in terms of passenger numbers, relying on local alliances may not be enough if international carriers want to tap into the country's potential.

"The foreign carriers are taking a different view," Herdman says. "They recognize they might not be able to get more slots in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, so they are becoming more tempted to put in direct services to cities such as Chengdu and others."

Hesitating to call any city second-tier, Herdman says cities such as Chengdu, Qingdao and Chongqing are among the most populated on the globe.

According to the Airline Industry Forecast published by the International Air Travel Association in December, China's passenger numbers are expected to jump by 227.4 million by 2017 on routes within or connected to China.

The report places China as the largest driver of growth, accounting for 24 percent of new passengers over the next three years.

Of the new passengers, 195 million are expected to be domestic travelers, with 32.4 million international.

International passenger volume within China is expected to continue thriving with a 7.1 percent compound annual growth rate.

The Middle East, with a healthy 6.3 percent compound annual growth rate, holds the strongest growth by region.

Connecting the two busiest regions, Qatar Airlines launched its new Hangzhou-Doha route last month.

"The fact that the Asia-Pacific region, led by China and the Middle East, will deliver the strongest growth over the forecast period is not surprising," says Tony Tyler, director general and CEO of the International Air Travel Association. "Governments in both areas recognize the value of the connectivity provided by aviation to drive global trade and development.

"To reap the benefit, governments in those regions will need to change their view of aviation from a luxury cash cow to a utilitarian, powerful draft horse to pull the economy forward."

But it's not business travelers seeking opportunity in the untouched corners of the world's second-largest economy who are calling for more international flights.

Increased interest in travel abroad from China's prospering middle-class has the airlines deliberating over how to take advantage of this new generation of vacationers.

In 2012, the number of outbound travelers from China was more than 80 million, prompting several European tourist boards to launch campaigns to draw in Chinese tourist pounds and euros. The number hit 97 million last year. Most of these travelers were from cities outside Beijing and Shanghai. It is in the second-tier cities where the real swelling of numbers is taking place.

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