Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines is eager to fly daily from Manchester and to start routes from Heathrow. Lucy Huxley reports
Hainan Airlines operates the UK’s only direct route to China from outside London.
It flies an Airbus A330 from Manchester to Beijing four times a week and recently added a fifth flight that will begin in June, having entered the market to serve the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.
Such has been the success of the route that Hainan hopes to make the service daily this year.
With the potential new flights, Manchester airport could see Hainan Airlines operating Boeing 787 Dreamliners on the route.
On top of that, Hainan also wants to start flying from Heathrow to elsewhere in China. Routes being considered are Chengdu, for the pandas; Shenzhen, China’s Silicon Valley; and the business centre of Changsha.
Such ambitious expansion is typical of Hainan’s private owner the HNA Group, which was ranked 353rd in last year’s Fortune 500 list of the world’s largest companies with annual revenue of $29.5 billion.
HNA owns stakes in Carlson Rezidor, Swissport, Hilton Worldwide and Spanish hotel chain NH Hotels. It also owns several domestic airlines in China and last month bought a major stake in Frankfurt‑Hahn airport. In addition, it part-owns Brazilian carrier Azul, which gives it access to part-ownership of Tap Portugal and French airline Aigle Azur.
Hainan UK account manager Diogo Castanheira, based in Manchester, said: “[Gaining a stake in] Aigle Azur was a strategic move by HNA Group to develop our European network. We are part of a worldwide company and our chairman has designs to move from 353rd into the top 100 of Fortune 500 companies very soon.
“Hainan flies to 44 airports in China from our Beijing hub and we are big in the US, Australia, and have been in Brussels for 10 years, and more recently Rome, Paris and Manchester. Last year we started flying from Calgary, Tel Aviv and Las Vegas.
“We came to Manchester to serve the Northern Powerhouse region. There are 50,000 Chinese expats just in the Manchester area, and 85% of Chinese students [in the UK] are here.”
Due to the number of Hainan customers who use the airport, Mandarin speakers have been employed and luxury brands have increased their presence.
Castanheira is confident that increased frequency and capacity on the route is needed and would be filled easily.
“It’s going to happen sometime this year,” he added. “It’s still to be confirmed but the route has done so well. The load factors are very healthy. We have 32 business-class seats and 262 in economy.”
Castanheira said more than 80% of the airline’s customers are business travel and VFR passengers, something he is keen to change.
“Our goal is to increase the leisure side. We have good [UK] inbound leisure business, but we want to increase outbound leisure travel through relationships with operators,” he added. “We work with Wendy Wu Tours and Omega Holidays, but we’d like to target the likes of Titan Travel and Travelpack, and build relationships with agents and their customers.”
Castanheira said Hainan was starting to work closer with Gold Medal, Travel 2, Jetset, Quartz Travel and Key Travel, but was keen to engage more agents and to work hard with the trade this year.
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