China Southern celebrated the launch of a new direct link between London and the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou this week, with executives visiting the UK also discussing their plans to turn the airline into the biggest in the world. 

The new route will be operated by a two-class B787-8 on the following schedule: 

Route Flight Number Departure  Arrival Flights
London Heathrow to Zhengzhou CZ654 2210 1520 (following day) Tuesday/Saturday
Zhengzhou to London Heathrow CZ653 1610 2010 Tuesday/Saturday

Heathrow said the route would use Terminal 4 and provide its 13th direct link with China.

At a launch event in London on Wednesday, China Southern’s Deputy Marketing Director Xiao Yong commented: “This is the first direct scheduled flight from Zhengzhou to Western Europe. It is also the first intercontinental direct flight launched by China Southern from Henan province. 

“For many years passengers from Zhengzhou and London needed to transit through Beijing or Guangzhou, but now the total travel time will be shortened to 11 hours.”  

Zhengzhou is the capital of Henan, China’s third most populous province, with more than 109 million inhabitants.

Textiles and manufacturing are major industries in the city, which makes almost two thirds of the world’s iPhones. 

Xiao Yong of China Southern said that while the airline also flies to Amsterdam, Paris and Moscow, Britain is its core target market within Europe. 

It currently runs direct daily flights to London Heathrow from its Guangzhou hub, as well as three per week from Wuhan in Hubei province, and two per week from Sanya in the coastal province of Hainan. 

Those will soon be joined by flights from Beijing’s new Daxing International Airport, which is set to open on September 30 and has begun its first test flights.

China Southern and fellow state-owned carrier China Eastern are each due to get 40 per cent of the slots at the airport, which is targeting 45 million annual passenger capacity by 2021, rising to 72 million by 2025.

Between them, China Southern, Shanghai-based China Eastern and Beijing-based Air China hold two-thirds of China’s civil aviation market, according to the South China Morning Post. They also dominate the Beijing-London route, with Air China operating three daily services versus British Airways’ one.

China Southern has not yet confirmed where it will obtain the slot from, but the UK route from Daxing will “definitely be to Heathrow,” Dean Saxby, the airline’s Account Manager for the UK and Ireland, told Business Traveller

“We only have a base in Heathrow and we’re not currently looking to expand that. It’s a matter of when, not if, the flight will occur.”

China Southern is currently negotiating both with Heathrow and other airlines over how it will obtain the slot.

Saxby added: “There will be a time when we need to expand outside of Heathrow. The London office has only been open for seven years but has grown faster than any of our other European offices.

“Heathrow is the business hub, so that’s where it has started, though it has been constrained by slots. But we will move into leisure markets too.”

On the possibility of codesharing with British Airways on the new Daxing route, Saxby said: “It’s something we’re looking at doing, and we know we will be working together. But the finer details have not been completed and signed yet.”

Codesharing enables airlines to market routes operated by other carriers as their own and allows passengers to book an itinerary across multiple airlines under a single booking.

Such partnerships have become increasingly important to China Southern since it quit the Skyteam alliance last year.

It has expanded its codeshare agreements with British Airways and American Airlines, and launched them with Finnair and Emirates.

Qatar Airways bought a five per cent stake in the airline earlier this year, although does not yet have a codeshare agreement with it.

“Leaving Skyteam was mainly to do with Daxing airport,” Saxby said. 

“The alliance partners could not help us fulfil capacity for that because they were tied up with ventures elsewhere. We wanted to create new joint ventures to add the capacity we would like into that airport.” 

Though China Southern will cut back on some US routes in the second half of the summer 2019 season, that market is where “Daxing is going to come into its own,” according to Saxby. 

The airline will use the new capacity afforded by the airport to focus on operations to Europe and the US, while its Guangzhou hub will focus on Asia-Pacific. 

“Guangzhou will always be China Southern’s main hub, but it needed to split out slightly,” Saxby said. 

“Guangzhou can’t fit everywhere in the world,” he said. 

While the airline is not exactly reaching everywhere in the world just yet – indeed, it is not particularly well known in the west – it has a fleet of more than 850 aircraft, the third biggest in the world behind American and United. 

The China Southern representatives at this week’s event confirmed previously-announced plans to overtake both those airlines. It is aiming for 1,000 planes by 2021 and 2,000 by 2035. 

“The orders will come thick and fast. Our current strategy is to have 70 to 80 new aircraft deliveries every year,” Saxby said. 

Though it remains to be seen whether the airline hits those growth targets, its focus on strengthening and adding codeshare partnerships means rumours it would seek to join the Oneworld alliance look unfounded, at least for now.