Air France's Wuhan route to remain after all

2 Dec 2013 by Alex McWhirter

European airlines had thought secondary Chinese cities would be a gold mine.

By flying directly into China's interior, they would be saving passengers time and temper by avoiding the need to change planes at a gateway city like Beijing or Shanghai. But some are now thinking otherwise.

Late last week, Air France confirmed that its three times a week Paris CDG-Wuhan link would remain after all.

As we reported last month, the carrier had removed Wuhan from its route network for summer 2014, leading to speculation that it was ditching the Hubei province capital from the end of March (see news, November 4).

The rumoured subsidy being paid by the Wuhan city authority to Air France is believed to be due to expire in April, according to local Chinese media.

The fact the route continues suggests that Air France has come to some agreement behind the scenes. Given the murky world of aeropolitics it is unlikely we will ever know the truth.

Nevertheless, Wuhan has potential and Air France is the only non-Chinese carrier to fly there.

According to the airline, the city has a population of nine million with some 80 French companies located there. Most important of which is a JV car manufacturing operation between PSA and local firm Dongfeng.

But Air France is downgrading the service (outside the peak summer period) from a 309-seater B777-200 to a smaller 208-seater A330-200. From April, flight AF132 will depart Paris CDG at 1630, arriving at Wuhan the following day at 0900; return service AF139 departs Wuhan at 1125 and lands at Paris CDG the same day at 1700.

However, the fact that the European carriers are cutting flights elsewhere would suggest that the predicted demand simply isn't there.

For this winter and next summer, Finnair and KLM are reducing the number of flights they operate to destinations as varied as Xian (Finnair), Xiamen and Hangzhou (both KLM). And now the spotlight is shining on Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province and first served by KLM in 2006. More recently, British Airways, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Air China have all begun services to Chengdu.

What it means is that a huge number of seats have been added to a secondary city in a short space of time. One hopes there is enough demand to fill them.

Consider that Chengdu now boasts air service to Europe with KLM (four flights a week), BA (three flights a week) and Air China (three flights a week to Frankfurt). In addition, there are four flights a week with Etihad to Abu Dhabi and three flights a week to Doha with Qatar Airways. The two Gulf carriers compete with their European rivals by offering connections beyond the Gulf to cities throughout Europe.

And now it is rumoured local carrier Sichuan Airlines is considering a link to Paris CDG.

We await developments with interest.

Alex McWhirter

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