Etihad Airways, the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), will start flying to Beijing on March 30, making it the third Gulf carrier fighting for a share in China's lucrative commercial aviation market.
An Etihad Airways passenger plane model on show at the company's booth at the Singapore Airshow on Tuesday. [Bloomberg News]
The airline will fly four times per week connecting Beijing and UAE capital Abu Dhabi. Beijing will be Etihad's eighth destination in its rapidly expanding flight network in the Asia-Pacific region.
Etihad will join Dubai-based Emirates Airlines and Doha-based Qatar Airways to provide Chinese travelers with access not only to the Middle East, but to Europe and Africa as well, as airport hubs in the Gulf area are growing into the world's major air travel junctions.
"We have been looking forward to the opportunity to serve the growing China market," James Hogan, Etihad's chief executive, said yesterday.
"There is a huge appetite from business and leisure travelers for flights to Beijing, especially ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games. Our forward bookings are already ahead of our expectations," Hogan said.
Etihad is looking to increase its frequency to daily flights to Beijing and will fly to Shanghai as well in the near future, Hogan said.
The strong market is driven by flourishing trade and tourism ties between China and the UAE. The UAE is China's second largest trading partner and the largest market for Chinese exports in the Gulf region. The bilateral trade volume exceeded $20 billion in 2007, surging 41.2 percent year-on-year.
The UAE is home to nearly 200,000 Chinese and more than 2,000 Chinese companies.
The annual number of Chinese visitors to the UAE stands at 200,000 but is set to increase significantly, Hogan said, following the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries to allow Chinese tourist groups to visit the UAE.
Middle East carriers are also benefiting from China's close relations with Africa as government and State enterprise officials travel to Africa via the Gulf.
Gulf airport hubs are posing a threat to the historic dominance of Asian hubs, including Hong Kong and Singapore. They are spending billions of dollars on development, grabbing a growing share of intercontinental traffic between Asia and Europe, as well as the United States.
Etihad is promoting special fares to China with return economy tickets starting from 5,300 yuan and business class tickets from 16,500 yuan excluding tax.
Emirates, flying to China since 2004, said it would not launch a price war.
"We are closely watching our competitors, but the Chinese market has huge potential (for all of us)," said Adam Li, Emirates' sales manager in Beijing.