A new air route linking China with Africa will open tonight when an Airbus A330 wide-body aircraft takes off from Beijing Capital International Airport bound for Lagos, Nigeria shortly before midnight.
China Southern Airlines' flight will become China's only current air link, albeit with a stopover, between the mainland and the African continent. Another domestic airline previously operated an African route but abandoned it.
"This year has set many milestones for the deepening and maturity of the Sino-African relationship," said Liu Shaoyong, China Southern general manager. "China Southern's decision to launch the air route at this particular moment takes advantage of the historic opportunity in both political and economic terms."
China Southern's flight, coded CZ331, departs from Beijing on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, and arrives in Lagos after a short stop in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The return flight, coded CZ332, departs on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. It takes about 16 hours to fly one-way.
Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria, is the largest city in West Africa. With a population of 14 million, it stands as the nation's industrial and commercial center, Liu said.
Furthermore, Nigeria has become China's second-largest trading partner in Africa, right behind South Africa. "The prospect for trade growth is huge," said Liu, who joined China Southern in 2004 after working as the deputy director of the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC), the government body that oversees the airline industry, and as general manager of China Eastern.
Liu said that in October the two countries agreed to jointly build a US$8.3 billion, 1,315-kilometre railway in Nigeria, for which China will provide about 5,000 workers, including engineers. He called Dubai the "ideal transit" point between Asia and Africa since "we already have flights there from Beijing and Guangzhou."
Direct flights will not only save time but also prove convenient for travelers going to and from Africa, but also offer a "price advantage," Liu said.
A one-way ticket is priced at 16,000 yuan (US$2,051) for business class and 6,400-9,600 yuan (US$821-1,231) for economy class. If a passenger uses China Southern for connecting flights inside China, or uses Nigeria Airways to connect to other African cities or London, there will be a further discount, he said.
Li Lei, an analyst for CITIC China Securities, said the route may not prove profitable in the short term, but will be significant for exploring and growing the market.
China Southern, with a fleet of 300 large and medium-sized aircraft, is China's largest airline in terms of fleet size, passenger traffic and the density of its service network. "In terms of traffic, in 2005 we were ranked No 9 globally, the only Chinese airline to make it into the top 10," said Yang Defeng, deputy director of the airline's Party Committee Affairs Department.
"To understand how many people we served last year, it was as if we moved the combined population of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou at once," he said.
Although China Southern has always been seen as a Guangzhou-based airline, "it may come as a surprise to you, but we have 21 percent of the Beijing market," Yang said. "Our goal is to make Beijing our second hub, in addition to the primary hub of Guangzhou."
(China Daily December 30, 2006)