Travel fever sets off heated race to open more international air routes
Published: Dec 28, 2017 08:58 PM

Tu Lei/GT

As a frequent flyer myself, I am not surprised to see Chinese travelers flying around the world, but I'm still interested to see the diverse ways in which they explore the world and their enthusiasm for doing so.

Different sources and data support the conclusion that China is now an important market for outbound travel, and more and more Chinese now choose overseas destinations to spend their holidays. It's also common to see groups of Chinese travelers in airports anywhere, at any time of the year.

The airlines' expansion in international routes has also provided strong support for the travel fever. We can see that in recent years, the growth of international flights has been two or three times that of the domestic routes.

In 2017, international routes operated by Chinese airlines increased to 778 from 427 in 2013. During the summer and autumn seasons in 2017, there were 10,236 international flights each week serving 163 cities in 58 countries and regions. Currently, 42 airlines in China have permission to fly overseas, industry news portal reported in November.

Beyond the three giants (Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines), medium-sized airlines such as Sichuan Airlines and Xiamen Airlines are busy introducing wide-body aircraft and exploring medium- and long-distance international routes.

Even Cathay Pacific Airways, the HK-based airline with a 147-aircraft fleet by the end of November 1, is acquiring new aircraft from Airbus, despite posting the worst interim loss in at least two decades.

Another interesting thing I've noticed is that more second-tier cities such as Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, Hangzhou, capital of East China's Zhejiang Province as well as Chongqing in Southwest China are opening international routes.

Forget about subsidies from local governments for the routes. What we should admit is that it is always demand that comes first, while routes open later.

Take Chengdu as an example. The passenger turnover of Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport has exceeded 5 million, ranking No.4 after Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province. Currently, the airport has 104 international routes, including 51 fixed routes, that serve Europe, Africa and the Middle East.  

But there is another thing to bear in mind. Many Chinese flock to hot destinations for short trips, and they spend time shopping instead of enjoying the scenery. Their travel habits are a source of concern to the airlines and travel agencies. Airlines are launching more package tours to keep travelers around longer, and more in-depth tours are on the agenda for the airlines.

Also, as the airlines are extending their global networks, they still have room for improvement - for example, adding more direct flights.

My sister won a scholarship to study at Augusta University in the US state of Georgia this year and she had to transfer several times over two days to get there. From Nanchang to Guangzhou, then the first stop in the US was Los Angeles, then Atlanta and finally Augusta.

We can see that more Chinese airlines are not only focusing on first-tier cities overseas, but also second- or third-tier cities. As always, demand comes first, routes follow. We can envision more changes ahead for the Chinese airlines' global networks.