Alex McWhirter examines topical business travel issues. This month: European flights to the Chinese interior
Europe’s big airlines are expanding into the Chinese interior and opening up new possibilities for global travel.
Rather than restricting their networks to the old favourites of Beijing and Shanghai, carriers such as Air France, KLM and Lufthansa are rushing to add cities such as Qingdao, Shenyang and Wuhan to their schedules. In doing so they are stealing a march on their Gulf-based rivals such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.
The new links allow business travellers from Europe to access these heavily populated cities without spending hours in the transit lounges of gateway airports such as Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. Equally, they provide the many millions of Chinese interior residents with easier connections to the outside world.
Lufthansa will add flights to Shenyang and Qingdao on March 26. “China is and will remain one of the key growth markets for Lufthansa,” says Kay Kratky, the carrier’s board member in charge of flight operations. Air France is so keen to strike up a rapport with its Chinese customers that it has hired the country’s leading ballerina, Zhu Yan of China’s national ballet company, to promote its brand.
Mainland China, with its developing middle class, is probably aviation’s largest untapped market. Quoted in The Times, Geoffrey Kent, chief executive of travel firm Abercrombie and Kent, said: “China is a very exciting market. We’ve been going in there since 1982 but now we want to go out[bound] with the very wealthy. There are 50 million outbound Chinese and that will be 100 million within four years. Anybody who can conquer that market will do really well.”
Opening up new destinations provides the Europeans with a unique selling point that will keep them one step ahead of the Gulf carriers, who compete not only for Europe-China traffic but also the lucrative traffic flows between China, Africa and South America. So Lufthansa hopes that if the executive of a well-known Qingdao brewery (Qingdao was formerly known as Tsingtao in the city’s German concession days) needs to visit Africa then he or she would prefer to make one connection in Frankfurt rather than two – say, in Beijing and Dubai.
There is a huge boom in trade and investment taking place between China and Africa, and it’s not just precious resources that the Chinese are seeking. The sophisticated middle classes have become wine drinkers and are turning to South African vintages in addition to familiar brands from France and Australia. Writing in i newspaper in December, wine columnist Anthony Rose revealed that exports of South African wine to China rose from 20,000 cases in 2005 to 250,000 in 2010.
But the Europeans cannot afford to relax – the Gulf airlines have begun gaining ground. Qatar Airways added Chongqing to its network on November 28, while Etihad launched Chengdu on December 15.
Still, serving China’s interior is not a guarantee of easy money. Both Oneworld member Finnair and Star Alliance member Lufthansa tried and failed to make a success of Guangzhou (Lufthansa will withdraw from the route at the end of March) since the southern city is a mega-hub of the Skyteam alliance. Both failed to get a look-in when up against Air France, KLM and local carrier China Southern. Seemingly, only carriers with the size and network clout of Emirates can succeed in Guangzhou.
The downside to these exciting developments is that our own British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are losing out by restricting themselves to Beijing and Shanghai on the mainland. Hopefully matters will change before too long.
Who serves China’s interior?
- Air France-KLM: Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Wuhan (from April 11), Xiamen
- Finnair: Chongqing (from May 9)
- Lufthansa: Guangzhou (until March 23) Nanjing, Shenyang, Qingdao (latter two from March 26)
- Emirates: Guangzhou
- Etihad Airways: Chengdu
- Qatar Airways: Guangzhou, Chongqing
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