by Hugh Morris, The Telegraph, May 2, 2018
Anyone booking an economy ticket for China Southern’s new non-stop service to Wuhan would do well to select a seat in the front six rows of the cabin.
So keen is the state-owned airline to attract visitors to the central Chinese city that it's selling its premium economy seats - on which travellers enjoy five inches more leg room - as standard, for the same price as economy. Aim for rows 31-36.
Nick Newman, commercial manager at China Southern in the UK, explained that the airline is hoping to establish a market for the route and that the seats are “at the lower end of premium but as an economy seat is amazing”.
The decision is in keeping with an airline that, though the fourth largest in the world by passengers carried (126 million in 2017) and the biggest in Asia, is relatively unknown on British shores. Currently only flying to Guangzhou, one of the world’s fastest growing cities, from London Heathrow, but launching a non-stop service to Wuhan at the end of May, and Sanya later in the year, China Southern is looking to expand its reach into the UK and Europe.
The London-Wuhan route will fly three times a week on one of the carrier’s Airbus A330s.
It is no secret that the rise of Chinese travellers is fuelling a boom in air travel in and around Asia - the number of overseas trips made by Chinese residents grew 1,380 per cent from 2000 to 2017 - but Newman says China Southern is also seeing an increase in the number of western and British holidaymakers flying to China.
“In 2013/14 the flight to Guangzhou might be 75 per cent Chinese passport holders,” he said. “In 2017 this was down to 51 per cent, so it’s about 50:50 now.”
As the Chinese government - and by association the airline - attempts to grow the vast country’s tourism industry, China Southern is playing a key role by offering cheap flights to Guangzhou as well as for onward journeys to the likes of Sydney, Bangkok and Auckland .
And after a large investment in aircraft, travellers will complete their journeys on new Dreamliner 787s or Airbus A380s.
Newman said China Southern was in an “introductory phase” concerned with introducing travellers to China. “It’s about getting people into the market,” he said. This translates to thousands of seats sold at relatively low lead-in rates.
A search on flight comparison website Skyscanner of flights to Sydney in mid-June found that China Southern was offering fares for hundreds of pounds cheaper than some of its rivals. For example, KLM tickets begin at £1,142, Qatar Airway from £1,040 and Air France from £1,637, while China Southern fares start at £748. British Airways quoted £818.
The airline is seeking to promote the “Canton Route” to Australia from Europe, via China, as opposed to the Kangaroo Route, via the Middle East, or Southern Cross Route, via the US.
China Southern: the basics
China Southern prides itself on its size - 126 million passengers, a fleet of 770 aircraft, 690 routes to 210 destinations - but also its four-star rating from airline assessor Skytrax. “We’re the largest four-star airline in the world,” said Newman.
A member of the SkyTeam alliance, alongside the likes of Delta, Air France and Aeroflot, China Southern was founded in 1988 following a restructuring of China’s domestic airlines, creating the country’s Big Three: China Southern, Air China and China Eastern.
Since then, with hubs at Guangzhou and Beijing, the carrier has gone from strength to strength, focusing first on Asia, before expanding around the world. Its first long-haul route was from Beijing to Amsterdam in 1996.
By 2005, China Southern was placing orders for both Airbus A380s and Boeing 787s, one of very few carriers in the world to fly both. It also became the first Chinese airline since 1949 to land a plane in Taiwan.
The carrier joined SkyTeam in 2006, as aircraft orders and new destinations racked up. It boasts one of the youngest fleets in the industry, with an average age of just six and a half years. Among it are 11 787 Dreamliners (with 19 more on order), five A380s and 10 777 Extended Ranges.
It has a codeshare agreement with a number of airlines, including British Airways, Etihad and Air France.
Why visit Guangzhou?
Though China Southern attracts travellers looking for onward connections, Guangzhou was last year ranked the second-fastest growing city in terms of tourism, experiencing a 13.1 per cent increase in its contribution to GDP.
Sally Peck, who lived in China and returns frequently, said of the city: “If it’s top-notch dim sum you’re after, Guangzhou, aka Canton, is the place to be, a teeming, humid monument to the best and worst of contemporary China.”
Shenzhen, a city that registers a higher growth rate than Kuala Lumpur, is “a study in the haves and have-nots of the People’s Republic”, she adds.
“Luxury high-rises for business people loom over shanty towns housing the millions of workers who produce everything from trainers to toys for international consumption,” she says.
What about Wuhan?
Good question. Trawling the Telegraph Travel archives for information on the central China city returns little information.
It's best known as a former inland port, divided by the Yangtze and Han Rivers, earning Wuhan the nickname of River City.
Nick Newman said: “Adding Wuhan to our portfolio marks another important step in making parts of China beyond just Beijing and Shanghai more accessible and attractive for UK travellers.
“The city is rich in history and therefore not only appeals to those with wanderlust but also serves as a strong commercial centre for business travellers.”