China’s liberal policy of opening its secondary international airports to foreign carriers continues to attract more entrants, particularly from Asia. With Air China, China Southern Airlines, and China Eastern Airlines using their rights for long-haul services from the major airports, the battleground among foreign carriers has shifted to second-tier cities. Under Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) regulations, each of the three major domestic airlines may operate only one flight to those secondary destinations in the interest of discouraging competition on the same route among local carriers.
According to CAAC official Liu Shen Liu, while a few foreign carriers had ceased operating their flights, many others have expressed interest. “Almost every Asian carrier including low cost airlines are either flying to these cities or have applied to do so,” said Liu.
Last year Malaysia Airlines introduced flights to eight cities, and Indonesian flag carrier Garuda became the most recent foreign airline to receive approval from the Chinese authorities. Staring January 29, Garuda will launch three-times-weekly services to Zhengzhou followed by the same frequency to Xi’an the following day using A300-300s.
Garuda currently flies to Chengdu from Denpasar and Jakarta. It plans to fly to six other second-tier cities from Denpasar over the next two years.
The policy, which took effect in mid-2012, has been slow to convince European and U.S. carriers more interested in penetrating bigger cities, however. British Airways, which launched flights on the London-Chengdu route in mid-2013, pulled out in early 2016, citing declining passenger loads. Next, Lufthansa stopped operating Frankfurt-Shenyang for the same reason, followed by United Airlines on the San Francisco-Hangzhou route and its seasonal flights to Xi’an.
United introduced flights to Hangzhou in July 2016 after failing to secure the slot for a second daily San Francisco-Pudong service. Three months later the carrier received the approval for the second daily, which prompted it to cease operating to Hangzhou.
European carriers now operating to second-tier cities include KLM and Air France, which operate under their own banners, Lufthansa, and Finnair. KLM flies four times weekly to Chengdu and three times weekly each to Hangzhou and Xiamen from Amsterdam, while Air France offers four flights weekly from Paris to Wuhan.
Lufthansa flies three times weekly between Frankfurt-Chengdu. Finnair operates three flights a week each to Chongqing and Xi’an from Helsinki.
Finnair plans to launch four weekly services to Nanjing using Airbus A330-300s on May 13.
Liu noted that the growth of secondary points will prove just as important as opening capacity at major cities in boosting tourism and the economy. China’s 12th five-year plan, which ran from 2011 to 2015, called for development of Chengdu, Wuhan, Chongqing, Xi’an, Shenyang, Changsha, Hangzhou, and Zhengzhou as second-tier hubs for long-haul flights.