Business / Industries

Carriers fly the flag to the US

By Wang Wen (China Daily) Updated: 2015-05-21 07:31

Airlines operate more direct flights between China and North America as passenger volume grows, reports Wang Wen.

Zhang Hui is delighted she will be able to fly directly to Los Angeles in July when she visits the United States.

As a resident of Nanjing, Jiangsu province, she can now take advantage of China Eastern Airlines Corp Ltd's plan to launch its first nonstop route between Nanjing and LA.

Operational flights start on June 30 and they will be the first direct routes between Jiangsu province and the US.

"I was surprised to know that I could fly nonstop to Los Angeles," Zhang, 30, said. "This has been very good news."

Before, she had to transfer, usually in Shanghai, when traveling to the US. But now it is a different story. During the summer season, Chinese airlines for the first time will overtake their US rivals in the number of flights for the Sino-US market.

The "Big Four" carriers-Air China Ltd, China Eastern, China Southern Airlines Co Ltd and Hainan Airlines Co Ltd-will run 2,028 flights a week across the Pacific in the third quarter. The number of US flights will be 1,853 during the same period, according to the Center for Aviation, a global aviation market analysis company.

Li Jiaxiang, head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, said that the massive investment in China's airlines will mean US carriers no longer dominate the Sino-US market.

But then, air traffic across the Pacific is entering a huge growth period after a new visa policy was brought in. Expanding trade between China and the US has also helped boost the industry.

At the end of last year, the US government started handing out 10-year visas to Chinese nationals. The visa application process has also been simplified and this has stimulated airline growth.

Statistics from the US Embassy in China showed that 1.84 million non-immigrant visas were issued in 2014, compared to 1.5 million in 2013. This year the number is expected to exceed 2.5 million.

The Chinese government has also encouraged the country's airlines to expand international markets.

"We received support from the authorities over the years and that makes it easier to open international routes," said a marketing manager, who refused to be named, from a domestic carrier, which runs several routes between China and the US.

Air China has the largest market share among Chinese carriers in the international sector and is the country's biggest player in the Sino-US market. It has six destinations in the US, but its capacity is less than United Airlines Inc, the major US carrier.

Even so, Air China branched out in the US last year, with new destinations to Hawaii and Houston. The flag carrier also increased flights between Beijing and Los Angeles to 21 a week.

This year, the airline will operate 2,576 flights to the US compared to 2,300 in 2014, the Center for Aviation said.

Rivals such as China Southern Airlines have also made inroads into the US sector. China Southern is the only local carrier which operates the 506-seater Airbus 380 passenger jet. The super jumbo has been used on the Guangzhou-Los Angeles route since 2012.

In 2014, China Southern opened two routes to the US, including Guangzhou to New York and San Francisco via Wuhan. The carrier is planning to open direct flights between Guangzhou and San Francisco. It is also planning to increase flights to other US destinations.

China Eastern Airlines, which runs four routes to the US, expects to expand after adding 20 Boeing 777-300ER aircraft to its fleet last year.

"Most of the new aircraft will be used on the Pacific routes," said Luo Anping, media manager from China Eastern Airlines' public relationships department.

Hainan Airlines, which is the smallest and youngest player among the main Chinese carriers, has three routes to the US. But it will open three more in June, including the Beijing to San Jose, Shanghai to Boston and Shanghai to San Francisco routes.

The airline has a fleet of 10 Boeing 787-8 for the North America market, but plans to expand after ordering 30 Boeing 787-9 passenger jets in March. The new aircraft will be used on North American routes.

"Hainan Airlines' long-term plan is to fly to eight destinations in North America," said Wang Yingming, executive vice-president of HNA Group, parent company of Hainan Airlines.

The market share for Chinese airlines in the Sino-US market will continue to increase in the future.

"The international market, especially the US routes, is blue ocean for Chinese airlines," said Li Xiaojin, professor of economic management research at the Tianjin-based Civil Aviation University of China.

As China's economic growth slows, domestic routes are likely to stagnate, according to Li. But there is growth potential in the international sector.

Last year, the number of Chinese outbound travelers was about 109 million. This year that figure is expected to rise to 120 million, the China National Tourism Administration has fore casted.

But US airlines are fighting hard to retain their market share. American Airlines Inc, the world's largest carrier by fleet size, started a daily route from Beijing to Dallason May 8. It also plans to open up other destinations, according to Erwan Perhirin, Asia-Pacific vice-president of the American Airlines, as well as increasing flights between Chengdu and San Francisco from June 6. "The entire market is still growing, so we are as well."

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