China witnessed the maiden flight of the country’s first commercial jetliner, the C919, earlier this month. The successful test is testament to the ambitious plans of Chinese companies in the fast-growing aviation market. Chinese airlines also say demand for more domestic and international flights is taking off.
More people from China are falling in love with traveling overseas. Some 122 million people from China went abroad in 2016. “We estimate this number could reach, by the year 2020, about 500 million”, said Jeff Yu, principal of consulting firm Roland Berger.
In light of the growing demand, many airlines have rolled out plans to open routes to more international destinations. “We are using our hub in Kunming to provide flights to Southeast and South Asia, and our hubs in Xi’an and Guangzhou to develop flight routes to the Middle East and Europe. We call this building a Silk Road in the sky,” said Yang Chunfei, deputy department general manager at the marketing and sales committee of China Eastern Airlines.
Chinese C919 passenger jet takes maiden flight from Shanghai Pudong International Airport on May 5, 2017. /CFP Photo
For every 20 people in China, only one has a passport. That’s compared to more than a third in the US. Experts say more people are getting travel papers, and airline officials are optimistic. “In the past, international travel was hindered by visa policies. But in recent years, many countries have made visa registration more convenient for Chinese citizens. Some are even offering 10-year visa-free policies. This is a positive for overseas travel”, said Yang.
Analysts say the majority of overseas travelers are residents of top tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. But that too is changing. A lot of tier two cities are also providing opportunities for tourism. “Judging by our data for last year, demand for international travel in tier two and newly emerging cities is growing rapidly. We are planning to open more flights in these cities to accommodate the needs,” said Yang.
Industry experts say while rising demand is good news for airlines and airports, it also creates challenges for them to look beyond ticket sales and develop value-added businesses, such as cooperating with local hotels and tourist spots.