Beyond the Great Wall: Chinese airlines are voraciously expanding abroad, with implications for airlines everywhere

Beyond the Great WallThere’s nothing new about this phenomenon. Since the star of the decade, China’s airlines have expanded their international flying with double-digit zeal— perhaps no surprise given the Chinese economy’s equally zealous

Well, Chinese economic growth is now softening. But the country’s airlines? Rather than slow their international growth in response, they’re doing just the opposite. Last year, in fact, was their greatest year of overseas growth yet, with capacity and traffic rising by more than
30%. That’s right, 30%.

China Southern, to cite one example, now flies almost triple the international ASK capacity as it did at the start of the decade. Air China’s international growth was only 20% last year, and China Eastern’s only 24%, which seems downright bashful compared to China Southern’s
31%. And it’s not as if these carriers started from a tiny base. On the contrary, they have operated substantial international networks for many years.

Just as importantly and influentially, carriers other than the Big Three have emerged as international contenders, expanding overseas with at least as much enthusiasm. Hainan Airlines is foremost among these international upstarts, but Sichuan Airlines now reaches as far abroad as Melbourne and Vancouver. Xiamen Airlines, partly owned by China Southern, has B787s serving or soon to be serving Amsterdam, Sydney, Melbourne, Vancouver and Seattle.

Europe, Australasia and North America have indeed been the three spears of Chinese airline intercontinental expansion. But shorthaul international expansion is no less prevalent, itself focused on three distinct markets: Japan, Korea and the ASEAN region. Here too are a group of newly internationalized carriers challenging the Big Three, led by two dashing young upstarts from Shanghai: Juneyao Airlines and the LCC Spring Airlines. Nor are just Beijing, Shanghai
and Guangzhou getting all the new service. At the start of the decade, these were the only three cities from which Chinese carriers flew longhaul international routes. Today the list includes Chengdu, Chongqing, Changsha, Kunming, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Wuhan and Xian.

Barely a week passes without at least one Chinese airline applying for a new overseas route. Just since the start of this year, route requests were filed for Guangzhou-Toronto (China…

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