Recent UK-China Talks are a Boost to Tourism and Aviation Ties, but the UK is Still Playing Catch-Up
The past two weeks have been very good for UK-China relations, economically, politically and tourism wise as well. There has been much talking and dialogue been done over the years but not much execution of any concrete actions when it comes to increasing tourism and economic ties between the two nations. So, it was particularly nice to see a number of trade agreements being made when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, carrying on their pledge to strengthen political trust and cooperate in a number of key areas, such as trade and investment.
“This year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level between China and Britain,” Premier Li said, noting that bilateral ties would develop on the basis of mutual respect and equality. He said Britain was a highly open economy, and China would advance its opening up. In particular this followed on from earlier in the week when the United Kingdom and China agreed to increase their weekly flight quotas with a 50% increase in the limit of weekly flights between the countries. The current bilateral agreement from 2016 sets the limit at 100 flights per week, while under the terms of the new deal the limit will be raised to 150.
According to the timetables I have seen on OAG Aviation, there are currently 59 weekly non-stop flights between China and the UK. FlightGlobal schedules data shows that Air China accounts for the highest seat capacity between the UK and China (30.2%), followed by British Airways (20.6%) and China Southern Airlines (12.5%). China Eastern Airlines are also leading when it comes to the total traffic between Europe and China with 130 flights per week and a strong 24.3% market share by capacity, although those numbers also include non-EU countries. There are also non-stop flights to second-tier cities including Tianjin, Qingdao and Chongqing.
Those in the aviation industry would have been waiting for this moment for years, and even though it is not too late for the UK to start operating more flights to mainland China, I do feel that the UK is playing catch-up with the rest of the EU and the world for that matter when it comes to competing for landing slots in destinations in the UK-China space.
If you look at some of the second-tier Chinese cities, they already have well-established non-stop routes to some European and Middle Eastern cities with other major carriers.
Air China, China Southern Airlines and Lufthansa are the biggest players on the Europe-China sector and this is reflected in the Star Alliance controlling almost half of the seats on these routes and Sky Team’s Air France and KLM both have strong positions in Amsterdam and Paris respectively. You can get non-stop flights to Amsterdam with KLM from Hangzhou and Xiamen and from Wuhan and Guangzhou to Paris with Air France. Turkish Airlines, voted by Skytrax World Airline Awards “Europe’s Best Airline” award for six consecutive years until 2016, and the “Southern Europe’s Best Airline” award for the ninth time in as many years, flies to all the major Chinese cities from Istanbul.
We also have the three Middle Eastern giants - Emirates, Emirates and Qatar Airways - operating numerous non-stop schedules to all the major Chinese cities for a number of years already and even to some destinations in China that most British and European people may have never heard of, such as Yinchuan and Zhengzhou which Emirates flies to. By contrast, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic find themselves in the most competitive Europe-China market and without a Chinese partner at the moment. Why doesn’t British Airways fly to Guangzhou or Chongqing or even Hangzhou? Hopefully, with the open skies agreement, things will change (but don’t hold your breath!).
China has the world’s second largest passenger aviation market with enormous growth potential in spite of some regulatory brakes. Both the domestic and international flight sectors present huge opportunities. If you take a typical short three-hour domestic flight from Guangzhou to Beijing for example, you may end up sitting in a Boeing 777 or an Airbus A380 with a full three-class cabin configuration and all flights are usually full. If you go to even some of the airports in the second-tier cities in China, such as Xi’an or Hangzhou, they make London’s Heathrow Airport look like a tiny regional airport. The key question here is why is it that some European countries are under-served to China by their home carriers, in particular Spain, Italy and the UK?
It is not an easy market to serve and yields remain low, but it is a must-do market. In 2013, British Airways excitingly opened the London Heathrow to Chengdu non-stop route, operating using a Boeing 777 aircraft with its nose painted as a panda’s face and traditional Chinese calligraphy on the fuselage. Much song and dance was made of the flight route, with even celebs endorsing the route. But less than three years later, the national flag carrier dropped the route because it is not commercially viable as there was not enough interest and flights were running below capacity. Even after having trimmed down the frequency and switched to a smaller, Boeing 787 plane, BA ended the service in January 2017.
The airline has meanwhile increased its Shanghai frequency from six times weekly to daily and the airline, as well as other British airlines, look very under-represented in this large and fast-growing market. In spite of Finnair carving out a successful niche, Oneworld is an also-ran on Europe-China, with only a 10% share. But it is not just its current size that makes it attractive to foreign carriers, it is its potential.
I also believe that tourism agencies in the UK need to do more to sell China as a good destination for visitors from the UK. While Chinese tourists to the UK are at a all-time high; however, even with a slew of iconic sights, Britain has still lagged behind other European destinations due in large part to unfavourable visa policies. However, the post-Brexit weakening of the pound has given the UK a major boost in mainland Chinese arrivals. Chinese tourists are some of the UK’s highest spenders, staying longer and travelling more than visitors from other countries.
But the trend needs to go the other way around as well- except for Hong Kong, mainland China is not sold as a premium destination by British tour operators and airlines. From what I see, and I stand to correction from anyone, but the vast majority of the people who travel to Hong Kong and mainland China from the UK are students going back home for holidays, the Chinese Diaspora returning back to their ancestral homeland or business people. Hong Kong has traditionally been sold by British tour operators because it of its lure of being a great stop-over city for those going to Australia and New Zealand and for being a business hub. I am surprised that Hainan Airlines has not been selling Sanya, China’s version of Hawaii, as an exciting winter destination for Brits to visit. Even Thomas Cook Airline, which is known for taking people to exotic places, is losing out on this goldmine of a market.
According to a recent figures released by VisitBritain, tourism spend by Chinese travellers is also up in a big way, stripping past the decreased value of the British pound. Compared to the first quarters of 2016, tourism spend was up over 54 percent in 2017. It’s worth noting that with the growth of Chinese travellers to Britain, the country still lags well behind other European destinations. Britain’s best year for Chinese travel, 2015, saw 270,000 Chinese arrivals. In contrast, France saw over 2 million Chinese tourists in 2015. Even a small country such as the Czech Republic surpasses Britain in terms of tourism numbers. 285,000 Chinese tourists travelled to the Czech Republic in 2015, and 355,000 visited in 2016. So, it would be interesting to see which routes will be operated on these open skies between China and the UK and I do hope that Britain becomes a leader and not carry on playing catch-up with the rest of the world in this thriving market.
This article first appeared in the Huffington Post Blog and also on China Plus.
QANTAS A380-842 "David Warren", seen arriving from Singapore and on the way to the parking gate at Heathrow. David Warren (20 March 1925 – 19 July 2010) was an Australian scientist, best known for inventing and developing the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder (also known as FDR, CVR, and "the black box").
It doesn't get better than this. On our flight back from our honeymoon to Shanghai, we receveied a card signed by every member of the cabin crew and cockpit crew, and an announcement made over the PA- to the applause from the passengers. Quite a celebration and a joyful moment to remember for the rest of our lives: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Kuala Lumpur airport is located around 50kms from the city centre- you can either cough up a heavy taxi fare (around $40 one-way) or take a quick express train from the airport to central station. The KLIA Ekspres is a premium non-stop high-speed train service that connects KL International Airport(s) and the Kuala Lumpur city center and takes around 30-minutes. It is clean, air conditioned and makes the London Underground and the New York Subway system look like wagons from a century ago!: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Kuala Lumpur is the 13th busiest in the world and always seems to be empty. It's built about 50kms from the city and not quick to get to by all means, and is surrounded by forest. But forests mean green and green means hot. During approach pilots (and passengers) have to contend with turbulence due to the localised hot air rising from the canopy: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
My wife and I would like to give a special thanks to Hong Kong based Passenger Services Officer, Ms. Koyi Wong from Cathay Dragon. After our flight was delayed from Shanghai Pudong to Hong Kong, we evidently ended up missing the HKG-KUL flight as well. Ms. Koyi Wong went out of her way to help us get not only onto our next flight, but also to make sure that our luggage arrived safely onto our next flight from Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi (which was with Malaysia Airlines on a different ticket).
Koyi is a customer service professional extraordinaire, and in all my travels so far I have never come across an airline personnel who genuinely goes out of their way to help passengers. If it was not for her, we would have missed our flight to Langkawi from KL and it would have occurred us extra charges and delays etc. She deserves a special mention in your company newsletter or similar communication materials and I hope she can become more successful in her career and life. There are some truly amazing people in the aviation industry and Ms. Koyi Wong is definitely one of them. Amazing human. I did not take her photo, but here is a photo of her badge, which she quite rightly deserves to wear with sheer pride. People like Koyi ALL work for airlines (except for the ones who work in hospitals...or ambulances...or rescue helicopters etc.). My hats off.
Airline pilots are apparently trained not to spill drinks while in-flight. Interestingly, after our flight was delayed by nearly three hours (they like to avoid the insurance claims, so the delays are always just below three hours!), these chaps were in such a rush to get me to my wedding in Yangzhou that we ended up spilling the drinks in-flight!
Dubai Airport at 1am...the world's jet lagged come here to do shopping at midnight. Yep, people love buying gold at night (like you do!)!
Wedding cake and card given by Emirates airline cabin crew on flight to Dubai from London. Great flight...photos on their camera came out better (yes, hard to believe that a PHOTOGRAPHER could not take his own photo!)...never had 12 crew surrounding my seat...what a celebration!: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
There's a #Londonminute but also a #HongKongsecond, which is what I did on today. I flew from Shanghai to Hong Kong to London, stayed in London for 10 hours, and then flew out back to Shanghai that night! Makes me realise how globally connected we all are - we're only an email or a flight away from everyone!. #london #hongkong Definitely the shortest time I've ever flown to a city!
Time to go back to Shanghai (via Hong Kong)...def will beat DHL to get my parcel to the British Embassy- as that would have taken 3 days...quickest turnaround...12 hours of running around London getting errands done (including a quickfire shopping trip to Harrods) and 8 hours of bliss sleep thanks to a great book by James (read his book...perfect for long-haul flights and short stopovers!). Ciao London...
I first met James on an Emirates A380 flight from Dubai to London Heathrow (Callsign ‘EK003 heavy’- click here to view the review of that flight) in 2011. He was our Senior First Officer and was kind enough to take a few photos for me from the flight deck using my camera (my camera was allowed in, but not I!). We had an amazing crew on that flight, and the senior purser was a good bloke. Upon hearing that I was a photographer and journalist, he replied “Oh, our senior pilot is also a photographer and author- let me speak to him and see if he can lend you his book”. The guy gave me his book for the whole flight…best in-flight reading I have ever done! After we landed at a windy Heathrow, the senior purser (who somehow also doubled as a good salesman), asked me “So, what do you think? Would you like to buy it?” I burst into laughter….I thought it was a free gift from James!
Ever since that flight, we have been good mates. I can say that he comes across as a very friendly and customer-focused person- which is a rare to find in the aviation industry these days. Reading his blog posts and his Facebook posts, you get the feeling that he is a true aviator and not just a pilot- he calls his planes girlfriends…I mean, you can’t really get much more love out of your job than that! He makes you wish you were a pilot, even if you are not into aviation and even if you have no love for planes whatsoever! James has always provided me with great advice about flying and I have cherished that advice. We met again in Dubai in 2015. This time he was preparing for his simulator test for his command course on the Airbus A380. It was at that time that he told me of his retirement plans. I was quite sad and surprised to hear it.
James’ last flight, EK407, was on the 24th of September from Melbourne (MEL) to Dubai (DXB) on aircraft registration A6-EDY, arriving early in the morning in Dubai. I cannot begin to imagine what he must be going through at this time, knowing that he will never fly ever again. His career has been nothing short of an exemplary one for those who want to enter the challenging but rewarding world of aviation.
He will be writing books in his retirement on subjects related to aviation (while downing a few well-deserved daiquiris in Boracay, no doubt!). Click here to read a review I wrote for one of his books in sleeping for pilots and other insomniacs!
In his own words, just before this last commercial flight out of Melbourne for Dubai, the great Melbournian said on Facebook: “They say pilots only love the plane they're flying ... And they remember only two flights, the last one they did and their first solo. Thanks, Peter Nelson, for sending me solo in 1985 ... Will never forget it!”.
After a remarkable career of thirty-one and a half years that many can only dream of having, I am sure he will be yearning to fly again soon! Mate, you are really an inspiration to many and it has been an absolute pleasure to know you as a mate. Here’s cheers to a very well-deserved and happy retirement!
Below is a recording of James' interview on Melbourne's Radio 3AW with Darren James
On 3 August 2016, a Boeing 777-300 aircraft, registration A6-EMW, belonging to Emirates Airline, was operating a scheduled passenger flight, numbered EK521, and departed Trivandrum International Airport (VOTV), India at 0506am local time for Dubai International Airport (OMDB), the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At approximately 0837am local time, the aircraft impacted the runway during an attempted go-around at Dubai. There were a total of 300 people on-board the aircraft, comprising of 282 passengers, two flight crew members, and 16 cabin crew members. However, the UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) was very sad to announce that one of the firefighters lost his life while saving the lives of the others.
Jassim Isa Al Balushi managed to rescue 300 lives, but in doing so, he lost his own. The brave firefighter sustained fatal injuries after helping put out the flames during rescue operations, the report said. His valiant efforts, however, were not in vain, as everyone on board escaped from the burning jet alive—including 282 fliers and 12 cabin staff. Once everyone evacuated, the aircraft exploded and burst into flames and Al Balushi was unfortunately caught in the blaze.
The initial report into the incident has shown the pilot had tried to abandon the landing after the main wheels of the Boeing 777-300 had already touched down.
When such accidents happen, it is always best to wait for the investigators to do their job and publish the report, rather than listen to so many so-called 'aviation experts' on the TV and the internet because most of them are just guessing and have little or no idea on what the truth of the matter is.
The official Preliminary Report has been published by the GCAA of the UAE. Click here to get it from their official website.
Flying from London Gatwick Airport to Madrid International Airport with Iberia Express at night rewards passengers with priceless views of the city.
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