Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jetset: "Tianjin Takes Off"

Beijing’s long-overshadowed and oft-neglected sibling Tianjin is taking off thanks to Airbus (among others). The Toulouse-based aviation giant has just opened its first final assembly line outside Europe in the port city.

Greeted by boisterous lion dancers, I attended the opening ceremony wondering if the world is ready for made-in-China commercial jets. The factory is certainly impressive, covering an area of 600,000 square meters to accommodate not only an assembly line but also a spray painting workshop, a power station and a hangar.

The manufacturing process is equally fascinating. Six jigs loaded with parts for an Airbus A320 – including a pair of wings and the forward and rear fuselage section – were transported on a container ship from Hamburg to Tianjin. Now the workers are putting all the pieces of this huge puzzle together, aiming to roll the first plane off the line mid-2009 for an on-time delivery to Sichuan Airlines. By 2011, Airbus expects the annual capacity in Tianjin to reach 44. The plant will churn out 247 A320-series jets per year by 2016, and will also start selling them outside China.

For those of you concerned about safety, Airbus has emphasized that European engineers will be permanently on site, and that planes made in Tianjin will go through the same rigorous testing and certification processes. While many multinational companies take advantage of China’s cheap labor, Airbus has made the move more for its long-term goals than short-term gains.

Despite winning over nemesis Boeing in the worldwide market several years in a row, Airbus is still the underdog in China. Boeing entered China 13 years ahead of Airbus and still controls nearly two-thirds of the market. Although it has been gaining on Boeing since 2004, Airbus wants half of the market in five years.

One thing the two archrivals see eye to eye on is China’s huge appetite for new commercial jets in the coming years. By some estimates, China will spend some 300 billion US dollars by 2025 to triple the size of its fleet to nearly 4,000 aircraft. The bottom line: China remains one of the few bright spots in the gloomy global airline sector, which has been hit hard by volatile oil prices and slumping major economies.

By building a plant in Tianjin to assemble the popular A320, the workhorse of many airlines and the second best-selling jetliner family of all time (after Boeing’s venerable B737), Airbus has agreed to transfer some of its technology to China. Some analysts call it a decision that will bring guaranteed orders from Beijing, but others question the wisdom of helping a future competitor.

China has made no secret of its ambition in the aviation industry, introducing its first indigenous regional jet last year and launching its large commercial jet program in May. One of Airbus’ main partners in Tianjin, China Aviation Industry Corporation I (AVIC I), happens to be in charge of developing the country’s own big planes. When China unveils its own jumbo jet in the future, more than a few eyes will be scrutinizing the design for resemblance to Airbus models. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 32 of the November 2008 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: "Golden Week Blues"

Another Golden Week, another billion travelers – or so it seems. Expect to witness the burst of national wanderlust this October, as people across China take their first serious vacation after the cancellation of the weeklong May Day holiday, and the relaxation of the Olympics-related security clampdown. Airlines have been doing their part to lure travelers back in the sky with amazing offers, like Air China’s EUR 99 roundtrip fare between Munich and Beijing.

For fliers, the National Day holiday travel craze means crowds on the Airport Express trains, in front of check-in counters and at the boarding gates – if you manage to make it that far. Chinese airlines have increasingly adopted the international practice of overbooking. In other words, they sell more tickets for a flight than the plane can accommodate. Flag carrier Air China recently even posted a notice on its homepage reminding passengers about the prospect of not having a seat on a flight on which one holds a confirmed reservation.

Before anyone gets outraged about overbooking, remember that you actually agree to it when buying an air ticket (carefully read the contract of carriage). Why do the airlines do it though? Well, business fliers, who routinely pay the highest walk-up fares, often change their travel plans at the last minute. Other passengers may also fail to make their flights for various reasons including missed connections. Airlines expect these “no-shows” when they sell tickets, and overbooking allows the carriers to take off with a full plane on most runs.

Figuring out how many seats to oversell each flight is almost a science – major airlines employ analysts dedicated to calculating that magic number based on historical data stored in their vast computer reservation systems. These experts are usually right, but problems arise when everyone does show up – and that tends to occur during holidays. For check-in or gate agents, the drill is to first ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for free tickets, upgrade certificates and other incentives – often a good deal if you have the time.

The nastier scenario only plays out when there are not enough volunteers. The airline will then have to refuse boarding to certain passengers based on such factors as fares paid, frequent flier status and check-in time. Despite the potential customer backlash and re-accommodation hassles, airlines overbook to maximize passenger load – thus revenue – for every flight.

As we mentioned before, while it is never a pleasant experience to be denied boarding involuntarily, rejoice if you happen to be in a Europe Union country. For long-haul international flights, you get at least EUR 600 in cash, in addition to rebooking, free meals, phone calls and a hotel room if needed. If you are stranded here in China, however, pray there is a major international event. Throughout the Olympics and Paralympics period, temporary regulations entitled passengers unable to make their original flights to unconditional re-accommodation and other generous compensations – regardless of the cause (yes, that includes bad weather). Roll on, 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 30 of the October 2008 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Jetset: "The Terminal"

To many frequent fliers, using a new airport terminal is like dating a new partner. You have the first impression, the trials and tribulations and finally a verdict. Almost six months after its grand opening, Beijing’s Terminal 3 has – for the most part – won me over.

By now everyone should be sick and tired of hearing the term “the world’s biggest single-building terminal.” T3 is undoubtedly gargantuan – when I took the futuristic driverless train from check-in to international gates, the journey’s destination seemed to be Tianjin. Even for domestic flights, be prepared for a Long March if your plane parks at the far end of the concourse. I am a brisk walker and left the centrally located airline lounge when boarding was announced for several such flights. By the time I reached my gate, it was already final call time.

Size does matter in the case of T3 – but I think it’s the height that has enhanced the passenger experience. An airy terminal with natural light seeping through? It had been an architectural concept rarely practiced on the mainland – and, in this day of cramped flights, that makes a real difference. T3’s other positive sides ranging from transportation access to shopping options have been well documented. So a heartfelt “thank you” to Sir Norman Foster for giving road warriors another haven after HKG.

Despite this great leap forward – and if we keep the dating metaphor – T3 is like the pretty but flawed girlfriend you sometimes love to hate. And yes, the devil is in the details. My biggest complaint so far has been bad signage. It’s not the lack of signs, but how confusing they are throughout the terminal thanks to a mind-boggling gate numbering system. It’s almost like a practical joke – signs pointing you to every possible direction for adjacent gates and often sending you back to where you started.

Even the much-welcomed new Airport Express service can fall victim to signage problems. As quite a number of flights land at T3 after the last city-bound train leaves at 10:51pm, I have already had friends make the trek only to see a closed station. It is a pain in the neck to clear security, re-enter the terminal and grab a cab during these sensitive times.

Another thoughtless element is the escalator from international arrivals gates to the level where you clear immigration. The airport authority somehow chose the narrowest type, forcing deplaning passengers to line up single file, while conveniently leaving out a staircase. The result: a full load of travelers off a jumbo jet stuck on a slow-moving escalator. Many long-haul fliers would be more than happy to stretch their legs by climbing a few steps.

T3 aside, the venerable T1 – which debuted back in 1980 – re-opened in late June after applying some light makeup. Unlike the major facelift it received from 1999 to 2004, this time T1 has simply changed tenant. It now handles the domestic flights of Hainan Airline Group, while China Southern has moved to T2. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 34 of the September 2008 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Jetset: "Navigating the Unfriendly Skies"

Summer is probably the best time to travel, but the worst to time to fly – especially now. Brace yourself for expensive tickets, delayed flights, cramped planes and minimal service. These scenarios aren’t entirely unexpected, as airlines around the world continue to cut capacity and raise fares to offset the impact of skyrocketing fuel prices. Still, it’s shocking to see how some major US carriers have taken the “nickel-and-dime” approach to a whole new level.

With little fanfare and almost no grace period, American Airlines (AA), United Airlines (UA) and US Airways (US) have begun charging passengers for all checked bags. The first bag would cost you USD 15 while the second one would set you back by another 25 bucks. This move is a slap on the face of many passengers as they are forced to check bags thanks to an increasing list of banned articles (including many toiletry items) in carry-on bags. We warned you about British Airways’ harsh baggage policy a few months ago – but at least BA showed some mercy by letting you check one bag for free.

While the US legacy carriers have exempted their elite members from the new bag fees, they are not so generous on other potential sources of revenue. Although US Airways initiated an award ticket fee ranging from USD 25 to 50, the absurdity was not legitimized until AA, the world’s largest carrier, followed suit by starting charging nearly all USD 5 to redeem a “free” ticket with their hard-earned miles. Many road warriors who cheered AA’s introduction of the world’s first frequent flier program in 1981 now greet the airline’s latest action with jeers.

Not only are “free” tickets no longer free, fliers also have to face steeper fees if they procrastinate. If you book your award seat within 21 days of departure, most US majors slap you with a so-called “close-in” processing fee up to USD 100. You will fork out even more if you need to talk to a live agent for whatever reasons – even if it’s the airline’s fault. Everything here defies logic: If passengers can find award seats closer to departure date, shouldn’t the airlines be happy about shedding some mileage liability? Instead, they reward your loyalty with another hefty fee.

Among the US majors, US Airways has stooped to a new low by taking away the last bit of complimentary in-flight service. Domestic fliers in the US have long stopped expecting free food offered onboard, but now they can also forget about free water and peanuts on US Airways. Flight attendants will happily serve you non-alcoholic beverages if you cough up 2 bucks (USD 7 for anything alcoholic). What’s more, US Airways smashed another cornerstone to the world of frequent flier programs by eliminating bonus flight miles for all elite members.

All the unsettling changes suddenly make the Chinese skies seem a lot friendlier. Planes may be equally cramped and flights are often more prone to delay, but at least you can still buy a ticket from a real human and redeem a last-minute award seat without breaking the bank. That’s what I call a harmonious (flying) society. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 44 of the August 2008 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Jetset: "Airlines Do Good"

Being a high-profile industry means the airline sector frequently finds itself in a harsh spotlight. With more Chinese flying than ever before, domestic carriers have borne the brunt of criticisms and ridicules in this country. This column has in the past examined the public outcry over poor customer service and unauthorized labor actions of mainland airlines.

All the problems aside, however, Chinese airlines have recently been deserving of better press. After the earthquake that hit Sichuan province in May, state ownership of major domestic carriers became an instant advantage, as the government was able to mobilize planes and personnel to join the rescue and recovery efforts within hours.

The airlines rose to the challenge. Flag carrier Air China (CA), whose Chengdu hub is less than 100 kilometers away from the epicenter, deployed dozens of planes to fly in rescuers and aid. After removing rows of seats on a Boeing 757 to fit in 36 stretchers, CA evacuated seriously injured patients from the quake zone to other provinces.

CA also proactively canceled some flights to and from Chengdu, and upgraded aircraft types for the remaining, making way for relief flights. The airline not only regularly updated its website on the status of affected flights but also announced a rare fee waiver for ticket-holders to and from the region, allowing them to cancel or change trips without penalty.

While the responses by CA and other Chinese carriers undoubtedly helped to generate good publicity for the companies, the speed and scope of the industry’s reaction made for an admirable display of its competency and conscience.

Even overseas carriers have joined the cause. Chicago-based United Airlines (UA), the world’s largest trans-Pacific carrier with five nonstop daily flights to mainland China, asked its customers to donate to the China Earthquake Relief Fund established by American Red Cross. As an incentive, UA set aside five million miles to award a one-time bonus of 500 miles for those who had donated USD 50 or more. The carrier reached its maximum contribution within one day!

Finally an unrelated note for aviation enthusiasts: You will have a chance to fly – or at least spot – the world’s largest commercial airliner right here at the Capital Airport ahead of the Olympics. Singapore Airlines will operate the Airbus 380 on the Beijing route August 2-8 – but only on one of its multiple daily flights from the Lion City. The Superjumbo in full view – how exciting! Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 42 of the July 2008 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Jetset: "When Pilots Become Upset"

Like air travelers elsewhere, passengers in China often fall victim to stormy weather, mechanical failures and increasingly congested air traffic. Thus far, however, they haven’t suffered seeing their flights canceled or luggage unsorted as unionized airline employees picket outside terminals – a scene not uncommon in Europe or the Americas. But alas, China’s air travelers are no longer immune to the impact of labor actions.

After brewing under the surface for months – if not years – the frustration of some Chinese pilots towards their management erupted in full public view this past spring. It started as a series of suspiciously coordinated pilot sick calls at several airlines, state media reported, and it culminated on March 31 and April 1 when 21 China Eastern flights bound for different airports in Yunnan province all returned to Kunming due to “weather.” Hundreds of stranded passengers grew furious when they learned planes from other airlines had safely landed at the same destinations.

Amid ensuing public outcry and media pounding, the civil aviation authority conducted a high-profile investigation. Its conclusion: Only three of the 21 “turnarounds” were due to weather or mechanical problems; the rest were caused by pilots who “ignored passengers’ rights.”

Although the investigators did not elaborate, speculation was rife about the pilots’ motives – ranging from anger at the company over a back-tax dispute to dismay over pay discrepancy between trunk and regional routes.

Many industry analysts, however, said the blame lay with an anachronistic system. Since the pilots are sponsored throughout the costly training process – from the moment someone is chosen to fly an airliner all the way to when he or she receives his license – airlines expect life-long loyalty from pilots. This system had worked fine until the breakneck growth in air travel in recent years changed the equilibrium.

With a sudden shortage of captains and the increasing lure of new airlines, pilots at state-run carriers find themselves in great demand yet trapped in cold reality. They have to pay their current employer an astronomical sum in compensation before they can quit. Case in point: China Eastern last year demanded RMB 12.6 million from a resigning pilot, and a court only recently reduced the amount to 1.4 million. Now ask again why many pilots are disgruntled.

But nobody has gained from the China Eastern labor action. Passengers saw their travel plans ruined. Pilots involved have reportedly been suspended. The airline received severe punishment: It was fined RMB 1.5 million and lost the right to fly two of the most coveted routes in Yunnan, which had long been its cash cow as the dominant carrier in the touristy province.

The biggest loser, however, appears to be the collective credibility of Chinese airlines. One recent evening I was stuck at Shanghai’s Pudong airport. Despite the heavy fog outside, irate passengers mobbed the check-in counters and kept shouting at the agents: “Why is this flight canceled? Are your pilots on strike again?!” Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 36 of the June 2008 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: "Airport Security Revisited"

All good things in life have to come to an end, and the airport experience in China is no exception. Air travel regulations seem to change faster than air fares these days. When I wrote about breezing through Chinese airport security checks for the March column, little did I realize things would take a dramatic turn.

A 19-year-old Uighur woman with a suspicious soda can. An alert flight attendant detecting smell of gasoline emanating from a lavatory. A flight diversion to Lanzhou with two terrorist suspects in custody. These were some of the details released by the government about a foiled plot to blow up China Southern flight CZ 6901 en route from Urumqi to Beijing on March 7.

The events are reminiscent of an Al-Qaeda-linked plan aimed at US-bound airliners from Britain in the summer of 2006. Like their British and American counterparts, the Chinese civil aviation authorities acted swiftly after the incident.

Although carry-on restrictions have been in place in China for a year, the one-liter cap on liquids for domestic passengers had largely been sensibly overlooked. The practice had allowed road warriors to bring toiletries on board after clearing proper and efficient security checks.

After a week of post-incident confusion, during which quite a few friends’ ChapSticks were confiscated at airports around the country, the Chinese government announced a near-complete ban on liquids for domestic flights. Exceptions are prescription medicines needed during the flight and the rather vaguely worded “limited number of cosmetics for personal use” – with each item containing less than 100 milliliters of liquid. Your favorite lip balms seem to be fine for now.

Babies aren’t so lucky this time: Formulas are not exempt. Airlines will provide them free of charge, but parents have to request in advance and have no choice in brands – perhaps one way to toughen up those flying “little emperors.”

For those of you familiar with US and UK airport procedures, if you look at the new Chinese routine and are waiting for the other shoe to drop – well, it already has. Starting March 26, passengers may have to take their shoes off while going through metal detectors. So if your socks have holes in them, it’s time to buy some new ones.

What’s more, if you travel with extra batteries for your cell phone and laptop, think twice. Many Chinese airports have a limit of two lithium batteries for each personal gadget you bring on board – either in carry-on or in checked bags. Security personnel will also conduct more pat-down and hand searches.

All the beefed-up measures ahead of the Olympics have sparked heated online debates. While most fliers appear to be willing to make some personal sacrifice for air travel safety, others blame negligence – not the old rules themselves – for the CZ 6901 incident. State media have reported security officers at the Urumqi airport failed to ask the female suspect to sip the content of the soda can as required.

With the tightened procedures snarling many checkpoint lines, major Chinese airports have increased the cut-off time for passenger check-in. For all you procrastinators out there, don’t try to cut it too fine. As inconvenient as the new rules may seem, you will likely find the experience after missing your original flight even more unpleasant. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 32 of the May 2008 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: "Airlines Go Green"

On a recent hop from London Heathrow to Amsterdam, passengers were being served drinks without snacks. An irate passenger demanded: “Where are the nuts?” A stewardess apologized: “Sorry, sir, but the nuts are fueling your flight.”

This may sound like a lame joke, but it’s not that far from actually being true. Virgin Atlantic Airways flew this route in late February with a jumbo jet using fuel derived from a mix of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts. Yes, the world’s first commercial flight fueled by renewable energy has taken off – albeit without any passengers onboard and with biofuels powering only one of the four engines.

Many environmentalists have branded the flight nothing more than a gimmick and questioned the sustainability of biofuel cultivation. But such criticisms have not dampened the enthusiasm of Virgin’s Richard Branson. He claimed the pioneering flight has demonstrated his carrier’s serious commitment to reducing carbon emissions.

It was certainly a timely message. The airline industry is taking a lot of heat for its role in global warming, even though commercial buildings emit more greenhouse gases than commercial airplanes. In Europe, some lawmakers are already proposing to reduce air travel by heavy taxes and other means.

Why the outcry against the airline industry? Experts say its phenomenal success – the number of passengers in the US alone already approaches one billion per year – may have brought its own undoing. While commercial aviation accounts for only about five percent of all fossil fuel emissions worldwide, climate-changing pollutants from airplanes in the US, for instance, could rise to as much as five times current levels by 2025 if the sector continues its rapid growth.

Airlines seem to have come up with a crafty solution to shed their eco-unfriendly image: a so-called carbon-offset scheme. In other words, when you buy an airline ticket, part of the fee will be given to an environmental group. Although no Chinese mainland airlines offer such programs yet, quite a few international carriers flying to China do.

Some airlines charge a flat environmental fee for a roundtrip (on Delta, USD 5.5 domestically and 11 bucks internationally). Others determine the amount based on actual emissions, flight distance and class of travel. On the websites of Cathay Pacific or Dragonair, the first Asian airline group to introduce a carbon-offset scheme last December, you can work out a figure with the smart online calculator. An economy-class roundtrip between Beijing and Hong Kong, for example, will produce 0.37 tons of carbon-dioxide – and you need to fork out 25.5 kuai to offset that. They even let you pay with frequent flier miles (686 Asia Miles in this case). Your contribution will be put into a wind farm project near Shanghai. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 32 of the April 2008 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: "Airport Security, Chinese Style"

The long lines, impatient staff and pointless procedures at an American airport security checkpoint these days may lead to the unthinkable: appreciation for the Chinese system. The drill: laptop out, jacket and shoes off, liquids and gels confiscated. And after all that – with numerous ID/boarding pass checks thrown in – the alarm still goes off after you walk through the finely tuned metal detector, triggering a brisk pat-down. Fortunately even the Americans have never enforced the now-discarded “one carry-on only” policy that the British did for a while at London’s Heathrow airport.

The process here tends to be a lot more straightforward. I have usually been able to whisk through security checks at Chinese airports without having to expose embarrassing holes on my socks or bidding farewell to my Listerine mouthwash. Technically there is a one-liter limit on the amount of liquids you can bring onboard, but security personnel tend to be very lenient on your toiletries for domestic flights. They also allow you to keep non-alcoholic beverages as long as you take a sip. Alcohol remains a no-no – though you wonder if the ban actually is aiming to help boost sales of the Moutai inside security.

Incidentally, have you noticed how polite airport security personnel in China have become lately? Whether manning security checkpoints or behind immigration counters, many of them greet you with a smile and speak to you in a nice tone. Talk about getting into the Olympic spirit! At the Beijing airport, you can even rate the immigration officers’ performance with the press of a button (though I would think carefully about casting a “bad” vote).

Before you throw the “safety before convenience” argument at me, let me point you to a widely circulated recent column in the New York Times titled “The Airport Security Follies.” Penned by a seasoned pilot/author, the article has struck a chord with countless frequent fliers thanks to its superb dissection on the absurdities of many security measures. For example, most experts agree the possibility of someone concocting a liquid bomb with hair gels in a lavatory is near-zero. The bottom line: “Air crimes need to be stopped at the planning stages. By the time a terrorist gets to the airport, chances are it’s too late.”

Some passengers have already responded to what they see as unreasonable regulations with extreme actions. A man almost died from alcohol poisoning after chugging a liter of vodka (yes, the whole bottle) at a German airport security check last December, instead of handing it over to comply with carry-on rules.

My assessment on the Chinese airport security checkpoints is a sober one, however, and I am not alone in giving the system an approving nod. A Shanghai-based correspondent for the US magazine The Atlantic has enthusiastically described to his American readers the airport experience in China as “low-stress.” Now I wouldn’t go that far – has he not tried to board a flight here? Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 34 of the March 2008 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: "The Alliance War"

Growing up I was fascinated by the sight of Pan Am planes taking off from exotic locations in Cold War-era James Bond movies. A 1979 route map showed the United States’ former unofficial flag carrier literally flying to every corner of the world: from Mumbai to Montevideo, and from Nadi to Nairobi.

But alas, that map also marked the beginning of the end. Starting in the late 1970s, flag carriers faced an increasingly volatile business environment as they gradually lost their monopoly on once-prestigious and lucrative long-haul routes. Some of the best-known names in the world airline roster have since disappeared: TWA of the US, Swissair, Sabena of Belgium and, of course, Pan Am.

Dominating the skies today are three global airline alliances. Star Alliance, the oldest and biggest, was co-founded by Lufthansa and United, and now boasts 19 members, with Air China and Shanghai Airlines being the newest. Skyteam, launched by Air France and Delta, has ten members, including China Southern. Oneworld, anchored by American Airlines and British Airways, also has ten members but has yet to see a Chinese carrier in its ranks.

Airlines formed alliances to cut costs and increase revenues, creating virtual cross-border mergers without having to clear prohibitive regulatory hurdles. Members within an alliance code-share, or place codes on each other’s flights and sell seats on partner flights as if their own. This practice allows airlines to cover the globe in a way that even Pan Am in its heyday could not, and make more money without adding a single plane.

Consumers benefit, too. You may notice ease of transfer at hubs, especially as alliance members coordinate schedules and push for an “under-one-roof” strategy. Star Alliance members, for instance, will move together into Beijing’s new Terminal 3 and Shanghai Pudong’s new Terminal 2 later this year.

The most-touted advantage, however, has to be reciprocal frequent flier benefits. By joining one program, you can now accrue and redeem miles on all member carriers, instantaneously multiplying your choices for a dream vacation (Star Alliance members, take note of Air China’s new flight to Pyongyang). Top elite members have even more to cheer for, as your status will be recognized across the alliance, meaning perks ranging from priority check-in and boarding, to bigger luggage allowance and free lounge access around the globe.

But it seems that members often take months to be on the same page. One Air China gold member was recently unceremoniously denied entry to a Star Alliance lounge in Switzerland since the computer system failed to recognize his status. And many members – especially those with smaller airlines – do not welcome the added competition for award seats on their home airline.

As grand as the term sounds, global airline alliances often seem to be marriages of convenience. With conditions, members can quit or get kicked out, and they never stop flirting with potential suitors in rival alliances. Air China, a Star member, and Oneworld’s Cathay Pacific cross-own each other. Singapore Airlines, another Star member, has tried to buy a major stake in unaffiliated China Eastern, only to run into a joint counter-bid from Air China and Cathay Pacific. All these intrigues make for some interesting in-flight entertainment. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 34 of the February 2008 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: "Dreamliner vs. Superjumbo"

Now that Airbus’ new A380 has finally started crisscrossing the world’s already busy skies, all eyes are on Boeing’s response to the European plane-maker’s much-hyped Superjumbo. Contrary to expectations, Boeing has opted for a mid-sized, wide-body jetliner carrying between 210 and 330 passengers (as opposed to the colossal A380 that seats up to 853). The twin-engine B787 may be dwarfed by the A380 in size, but is revolutionary in other aspects. In addition to new-generation engines and avionics, the B787, nicknamed Dreamliner, is the first ever “plastic plane” – an innovation has been a point of pride for Boeing but a subject of skepticism and ridicule from its detractors.

Instead of traditional metal, lighter and stronger composite materials – 35 tons of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic to be exact – are used to build each B787, including its entire fuselage as well as wings, tail, doors and interior. The result, according to Boeing, is a plane at least 20 percent more fuel-efficient than its rivals, a very appealing selling point when crude oil prices are hovering around USD 100 per barrel.

Passengers are likely to appreciate the B787 for its roomy cabin design (38cm wider than current competing models). They will also be able to see the horizon through larger cabin windows with higher eye level and futuristic auto-dimming features; breathe more easily in cleaner air provided by an advanced air-conditioning system; and enjoy a quieter ride thanks to new engine noise-reducing technologies.

Both Airbus and Boeing agree on the continuation of rapid growth in worldwide air travel, but their responses reveal their clashing views on the future trend. Airbus sees major airlines ferrying more and more passengers through their already-crowded mega-hubs to cope up with the rising demand – thus the need for the Superjumbo. Boeing, however, anticipates more travelers trying to avoid those congested hubs, opting instead for point-to-point service between smaller cities. So-called “thin long-haul routes” like Chengdu-Los Angeles and Beijing-Denver are already being touted as ideal for the B787 because of its operational efficiency.

Each manufacturer’s bet on its prediction is a multi-billion-dollar one, and it’s still way too early to declare the winner. So far the B787 has a leg up with some 50 airlines placing more than 800 orders, making it the fastest-selling wide-body jet ever before entry into service. The A380, in contrast, has logged fewer than 200 orders from 18 customers. But the B787 has suffered a blow as Boeing had to announce that, due to production delay, the first Dreamliner won’t be delivered to its launch customer All Nippon Airways (ANA) until December 2008, six months behind schedule.

That’s bad news for the five Chinese airlines (Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Hainan and Shanghai) that combined have ordered almost 60 B787s. They had planned to start flying the shiny new plane to Beijing before the Olympics. Unfortunately for the airlines, the Games’ slogan is now more like “One World, No Dream(liner).” Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 38 of the January 2008 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: "When Whales Fly"

For the new Airbus 380, size is all that matters. At 73 meters long, 24 meters high with a wingspan reaching 80 meters and an empty weight of nearly 280 metric tons, the so-called superjumbo eclipses its nearest competitor, the Boeing 747-400. Several meters longer, higher and wider, and 100 tons heavier, the A380 ends the B747-400’s reign of almost four decades as the world’s largest commercial airliner.

The new plane is Airbus’ multi-billion dollar bet that airlines need an advanced super-sized aircraft to carry a rapidly growing number of passengers between increasingly congested major airports, especially in Asia. A quick glance at the equipment list from Air China’s timetable between Beijing and Shanghai seems to prove the European plane-maker’s point. Air China (CA) deploys an impressive mix of B747, B767, B777 and A330 wide-bodies (with a few B737s thrown in) on this 90-minute hop everyday.

The combined cabin space for the A380 is some 550 square meters, the size of three tennis courts. What goes into this space is of course up to the individual airlines – and the bar has been set high by the first A380 operator, Singapore Airlines (SQ), an airline renowned for its cabin amenities and in-flight services. Although Airbus advertises the plane’s seating capacity as 525 in a typical three-class arrangement and 853 in a single-class configuration, SQ has opted for only 471 seats, creating a roomier environment.

The SQ A380 boasts a new “Beyond First Class” up front, offering each of its 12 highest-paying customers a mini-cabin fitted with a full-flat bed, a leather upholstered seat, a table and a 23-inch TV screen. For high-roller couples, two suites can be joined to provide a double bed for more intimacy under mood lighting – though SQ officials have publicly discouraged any mile-high-club activities.

Aviation enthusiasts derive their pleasure from simply riding on this sky liner. Many of them shelled out top dollar in an eBay charity auction for a place on the superjumbo’s maiden commercial flight on October 25, from Singapore to Sydney. A British dot-com billionaire forked out more than USD 100,000 for two suites and seated himself in 1A, although passengers in the 60 business and 399 economy seats spent less for their piece of history. If you want to experience the A380’s premium cabins anytime soon, however, be ready to pay a premium as SQ will remain the sole operator until the summer of 2008.

Closer to home, China Southern (CZ) is the only Chinese carrier with an A380 order. The first of CZ’s five superjumbos is not expected to join its fleet until 2009, but airline officials have promised same fare for its A380 flights, thanks to lower operational costs from increased capacity and fuel efficiency. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 42 of the December 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: "High Anxiety Over Low-Cost Carriers"

The recent deadly accident in Phuket involving Thailand’s One-Two-Go budget airline has raised a pressing question: In the age of dramatic expansion of air travel in Asia, how safe is it to fly the region’s growing number of low-cost carriers (LCCs)?

The advice from aviation experts is simple: Pay attention to the airline’s past safety record and the age of its planes. Since a plane only makes money when it’s carrying passengers, LCCs try to maximize their aircraft utilization by keeping the planes in the air as long as possible every day. This practice requires top-notch maintenance – and therein lies the Achilles’ heel for some Asian LCCs.

Amid all the boom, experts say some carriers have had trouble finding qualified pilots and mechanics, while some governments have been unable to cope with their increased role in overseeing the industry. Indonesia, for instance, has witnessed several fatal accidents involving its LCCs in recent years. A word of caution on aircraft age: Properly maintained planes can fly safely for decades; DC-9s, which haven’t been built since 1982, remain the workhorse for US-based Northwest Airlines. So don’t jump to quick conclusions.

It also helps to look at the anatomy of LCCs before you make a decision to fly them or not. LCCs can offer amazing deals because they cut their operational costs by simplifying fleet and fare structures, as well as eliminating traditional services. When you buy a ticket, a seat on the plane is all you’ve got. Everything else – from checked-in bags to food and beverages – will set you back extra.

The birth of Chinese LCCs has been difficult. Several new private airlines that aspired to become LCCs had to give up the idea after running into regulatory obstacles. The government still sets airfares and has the final say on everything, ranging from route authority and airport landing fees to jet fuel prices, so airlines find almost 80 percent of their operational costs are “fixed.”

The one domestic LCC that has survived and thrived is Shanghai-based Spring Airlines. It now flies to a few dozen destinations across China with six single-class Airbus 320s – and has been profitable since its launch in 2005.

Growing pains continue for Spring, however. Fliers still complain bitterly about the lack of “freebies” while local governments remain hostile. When Spring offered RMB 1 tickets on its new route to Jinan, instead of being applauded, it was fined for breaking with the official price structure.

Although it hopes to become China’s Southwest Airlines (the US-based LCC pioneer), Spring may want to think twice before copying some of the latest customer-unfriendly moves by Western LCCs. Ryanair recently announced it would charge passengers for checking in at the airport (instead of online). Now that’s just a step too far… my question is: Can onboard coin-operated lavatories be far ahead? Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 32 of the November 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: "A Dream Plan That Didn’t Fly"

I usually dread mingling with the business elite type at parties, as I tend not to share their enthusiasm in talking about the latest merger-and-acquisition deals. But this summer there was one hot topic that we all felt strongly about: the turbulent start of the Beijing-Shanghai Express flights. And boy, did I get an earful.

“Can you believe all 36 flights that day had nothing but full-fare seats?”
“The lines were horrendous at the Express counters, while the rest of the check-in area was empty.”
“This agent didn’t even know how to enter my frequent flier number!”

Complaints like these must be disappointing to officials at CAAC, China’s civil aviation authority, which launched the service on August 6. CAAC had ordered the five airlines flying between Beijing and Shanghai Hongqiao to pool their resources together in a bid to boost service levels on the country’s most-traveled air route, flown by almost 4.2 million passengers last year.

CAAC had drawn a dream plan: Flights every 15 to 30 minutes, all tickets fully changeable, as well as dedicated check-in, security, gates and baggage claim areas at both ends. Officials even instructed air traffic controllers to give the Express flights priority clearance.

Despite the fanfare, all that passengers noticed was high fares – as well as weakening service. Frequent fliers were quick to pinpoint the culprit of all the problems: government-sponsored cartel.

In the good old days, China Eastern and the Air China/Shanghai Airlines alliance competed healthily on this so-called golden route. (Hainan Airlines and China Southern operated too few flights to be serious contenders.) Each group ran a roughly hourly service from 8am to 8pm, and fliers like myself were able to snatch tickets as cheap as RMB 300 during off-peak hours.

When CAAC mandated that the airlines “coordinate” their operations, the carriers must have taken it as a cue to form a new price-fixing scheme. The airlines pulled out all discounts presumably to prevent fliers from abusing the ticket flexibility rule. They don’t want to see someone grab a cheap fare only to change it to a pricier flight or to another airline.

While the total number of flights remained the same, the “improved” or more evenly spread-out schedule has led to a total sold-out scenario during peak hours and overcapacity at other times. Adding insult to injury, inadequately trained airport agents have had trouble using one common system to check in passengers flying five different airlines, making the Express service area a scene of chaos and confusion.

All these may just be teething problems – and CAAC has apparently heard the public outcry. Officials say they are tweaking the service, and some modestly discounted fares have re-appeared. But many business travelers – not only the intended beneficiaries of the new service but also firm believers in market forces – have already voted with their feet. Has anyone noticed how hard it is to get a sleeper ticket on those overnight Beijing-Shanghai trains? Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 34 of the October 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: The In’s and Out’s of the Op-Up

Explaining the elusive operational upgrade

My friend Jack B. forgot to renew his visa before returning to Beijing from Los Angeles recently and only realized his dilemma while at LAX. Fortunately for him, he was flying during a major holiday weekend, and his flights were oversold. When Jack volunteered to give up his seats, the agent was so relieved she immediately offered him a USD 600 voucher and confirmed him on the same flights two days later – upgraded to business class!

While not the best way to teach Jack a lesson to sort out his travel documents an international trip, his experience proves the existence of the always-coveted and often-mystified operational upgrade, or op-up.

Op-up, as the name suggests, refers to complimentary upgrades handed out by airlines for operational reasons – usually when a flight is overbooked. Any class of service can be overbooked, but obviously it happens more often in economy class. Since many people are willing to pay – with either cash, miles or certificates – to upgrade, airlines will process their requests first. After that, the fun begins.

Different airlines have different op-up rules, but check-in and gate agents often have a lot of latitude. They will likely check your elite status and booking code – and start by putting elites and higher-fare passengers upfront. Single travelers also have a better chance, as it’s harder to find two adjacent first/business seats for couples or groups without moving others around.

As a United Airlines elite flier, I’ve received quite a few op-ups on long-haul international flights on both UA and its Star Alliance partners. It was always a pleasant surprise and should be treated as such.

And contrary to popular belief, dressing up and sweet-talking don’t usually cut it. Top Asian airlines – known for their luxury facilities and legendary services upfront – are stingy with op-ups to avoid diluting the value of premium cabin for paying customers. Just try and persuade a “Singapore Girl” to offer you an op-up!

Even op-up may not result in enough seats for everyone, and airlines sometimes will resort to bumping confirmed passengers off a flight. They will seek volunteers first and offer compensations for so-called voluntary denied boarding (VDB). What you get varies greatly, but op-up on a later flight could be one form of compensation, as in Jack’s case.

When all else fails, some passengers occasionally will be involuntarily denied boarding (IDB). Not a pretty scenario if you have a schedule to keep. But if it has to happen, keep your fingers crossed you’re traveling to/from a European Union country or flying with an airline based there. The EU has codified IDB compensations and they’re generous. For long-haul international flights, you get at least EUR 600 in cash, in addition to being rebooked on a later flight as well as being provided free meals, phone calls and hotel stay if needed. Which makes being stranded in Charles de Gaulle all that more appealing. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 146 of the September 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: Making Time Fly

Developments in the world of in-flight entertainment

Settling in your middle seat on a packed flight, you were desperate for some distraction. Anticipation mounts when the flight attendants pull down the projection screen. You put your headset on, only to hear the dreaded tunes and canned sound effects – another episode of Just for Laughs.

The Canadian silent comedy show has its moments. But if major Chinese airlines aren’t just joking about becoming international travelers’ first choice, they will need some serious upgrades on their in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems.

IFE on major Chinese airlines, at least for coach passengers, often consists of a hodgepodge of Chinese newscasts, infomercials, Shirley Temple movies and, of course, Just for Laughs Gags on flickering retractable screens. And no, a loud auction of a round-trip ticket over the PA system on Hainan Airlines doesn’t really qualify as high-quality entertainment either.

In the age of endless entertainment options and ultra-long-haul flights, top international airlines have been distinguishing themselves with increasingly sophisticated audio-video on-demand (AVOD) systems in all cabins.

When I took the world’s longest non-stop flight, Singapore Airlines flight SQ 21 from New York to Singapore, the airline’s next-generation IFE system made the 18-hour, 40-minute journey fun. In between all the eating and drinking, I felt time actually flew with the choice of 80 movies, 180 CD titles, dozens of video games and even language tutorials – all at my fingertips.

You can sample Singapore Airline’s KrisWorld system on shorter regional routes as well – but not all aircraft is fitted with the latest Wiseman 3000 version yet, so keep your fingers crossed. Other airlines are catching up with Singapore Airlines in the IFE race, like Emirates, which also boasts a true next-generation AVOD system. Korean Air is another IFE champion, with AVOD available for all passengers, including Economy Class, on selected flights. Their in-flight catalogue includes over 30 movies and a selection of more than 1,000 different music choices, and they’re planning to extend this system in future to include it on every flight.

Air China has made the first step in upgrading its IFE system by offering limited AVOD on its new Airbus A330 fleet with personal TV in every seatback. These planes, mostly deployed on international routes like Beijing-Madrid-Sao Paolo, make some domestic runs. I almost got to watch Steve Carell finally get some satisfaction in the flick The 40 Year Old Virgin on my own LCD screen on a recent flight back from Shanghai.

In the end though, you get what you pay for. Airlines that spend heavily on IFE will likely charge a premium. If rock-bottom fares are what you are after, grin and bear it, and thank God for the iPod. Steven Jiang

(Answer to last month’s question: The five airport codes in the last paragraph are MAD – Madrid; PEE – Perm, Russia; FAT – Fresno, California; SIN – Singapore; and PIT – Pittsburgh.)

This article was originally published on page 156 of the August 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: Airport Insider

The lowdown on airport codes

Ever wondered about the three-letter airport codes on your air tickets, boarding passes and checked luggage tags? In the age of LOL and BRB, knowing the difference between SHA and PVG will help ensure you and your belongings reach the desired destination.

Many of the codes are obvious even to casual fliers, as they are derived from the cities they serve. SHA stands for Shanghai – specifically, the older Hongqiao airport, whereas the newer Pudong airport gets PVG. Decades after the introduction of pinyin, however, many Chinese airport codes still reflect the old-style spelling of their cities. Beijing (Peking) retains PEK while Guangzhou (Canton) remains CAN. My personal favorite is the spiritual TAO for Qingdao (Tsingtao), which boasts a famous Taoist mountain – Laoshan – on its outskirts.

Some codes for international airports seem random at first. Why is Chicago O’Hare coded ORD? And if you’re headed to Disneyworld in Florida, why is Orlando’s airport MCO? Everything suddenly makes sense when you realize that O’Hare was built in an area formerly known as Orchard Place, and that the Orlando airport used to be McCoy Air Force Base (though many now joke that MCO stands for “Mickey and Company”).

Then there are the memorable ones – for reasons good or bad. Finnair often offers the cheapest fare to Europe from China via its hub in Helsinki. Could this be because passengers have reservations about going through HEL? And for a nation as polite as Japan, airport officials in the city of Fukuoka must feel at least a bit awkward to welcome visitors to FUK.

Interesting codes aside, what makes or breaks an airport remains simple: user-friendliness. Compared to other modern mega-hubs in the region like Hong Kong and Singapore, Chinese mainland airports still have a lot catching up to do. Luckily for us, Beijing’s airport – like everything else – is getting an extreme makeover ahead of the Olympics. Some current improvements which will likely lead to future bliss include:

- Rail links to the city center: Beijing Subway’s airport line will begin whisking passengers to and from Dongzhimen in June 2008.
- Seamless connections: the airport is working with airlines to offer true connecting flights, which means no more claiming bags and exiting before checking in again for a “connection.”
- Real food/beverage and retail options: everyone is sick and tired of paying 60 kuai for a bowl of mysterious “chicken nourish a gruel” (translation: nutritious chicken congee). Starbucks and KFC are a decent start, at least, with more on the way.

I hope the day will come when all Chinese airports receive similar treatment, so frequent fliers won’t be mad at smelly bathrooms (everyone needs to pee) or the lack of healthy food choices (no one wants to get fat). And there should be some nice stores on the way too – after all, it’s not a sin to do a bit of last-minute shopping before the flight. Then, hopefully, people won’t refer to the average Chinese airport as a pit anymore. Steven Jiang

(How many airport codes did you find in the last paragraph? See the answers next month.)

This article was originally published on page 146 of the July 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: Stretching Out

Surviving “cattle class”

There’s been a lot of buzz lately surrounding the Chinese government’s announcement that it will build its own large commercial jets by 2020. However, not everyone is as enthusiastic about Chinese-made jumbo jets – some skeptics seem to visualize a fleet of flying Xialis in the sky. Indeed, one major design flaw of those once-ubiquitous red taxicabs was, of course, the lack of comfortable seats, a problem that would be magnified on an airplane.

Flying coach can be fatal these days – just google “economy class syndrome.” Even barring the occasional mid-flight fatality, most adult passengers would find sitting in a “cattle-class” seat a pain in the butt – literally. The industry standard for economy class seat pitch – the distance from any point on one seat to the exact same point on the seat in front or behind it – is 31-32 inches, or about 79-81 centimeters. In comparison, seat pitch for a standard international business class seat is around 60 inches, or 152 centimeters. That’s the kind of space that allows you to comfortably stretch your legs.

However, if you’re not willing to cough up some serious dollars for higher class seats, you have to face not only narrow seat pitch, but also narrow seat width. And cash-strapped airlines are constantly thinking of ways to squeeze in more passengers into their main cabins. The latest idea floating around is adding rear-facing seats – talk about air travel taking another step backwards! Hopefully this proposal will soon go down the drain, just like the concept of standing-room-only sections.

The only saving grace in economy class belongs to the emergency exit row seats. Although they tend to have unmovable armrests and seatbacks, these drawbacks are more than offset by the ample legroom in front of you – which is sometimes more generous than that offered in business or first class.

And it’s still relatively easy to snatch such a coveted seat in China. All you need is to ask at check-in – and I’ve had a pretty high rate of success so far. Just beware that if you fly Chinese airlines, some airport agents wouldn’t place you on an exit row if you look non-Chinese, no matter how fluent your Mandarin is.

An excellent guide to all you need to know about airline seating is The website offers interactive seat maps with user-friendly color indication (choose green seats and avoid red ones). Check it out before your next check-in – and bring a neck brace. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 150 of the June 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: Excess Baggage

Deciphering travel policy to get the most from your flight

Air travel used to be a much simpler affair – the only baggage you carried was in your hands, not in your mind. These days you have to worry not only about frequent flight delays, cattle-like treatment, and whether or not your bags will arrive at their destination, but whether they will even get on the aircraft!

Airlines are just getting stingier when it comes to checked baggage allowances. The latest blow comes from British Airways’ “enhanced” excess baggage policy. BA has become stricter in enforcing its policy of one checked bag per economy class passenger – and that bag’s weight limit is now 23 kilograms, down from 32kg. Want to check a second bag? That would be GBP 120 (USD 235) for most long-haul international flights! They call it a simplified fee structure – most passengers seem to prefer the term “rip-off.”

Those familiar with airline PR spiel know by now that any “enhancement” in this industry almost inevitably ushers in a new, lower service standard. So many things we once took for granted – meal services, pillows, blankets, headsets, exit-row seats – have also been “enhanced” out of the freebie category.

Fortunately, Chinese airlines haven’t followed this international trend just yet. After I got so used to that tiny pack of free pretzels on those five-hour, coast-to-coast flights in the States, it still feels surreal every time to get asked “beef or chicken” flying Air China down to Shanghai. Whether or not the food is edible, of course, is the subject of a future column.

But things don’t look much rosier for road warriors who fly with only carry-on luggage. Ever since last summer’s foiled a terrorist plot to blow up airliners above the Atlantic, aviation authorities around the world have been tightening their grips over carry-on bags – and China has finally caught up. Beginning May 1, airline passengers in China will be allowed to bring onboard no more than one liter of liquid. For international flights, all liquids have to be placed in a re-sealable plastic bag, and single items must not exceed 100ml (baby food and medications are exempt).

While the new rules bring China’s carry-on restrictions in line with those of the US and Europe, dare I predict that they will snarl the lines at airport security checkpoints during the May Day holiday week even further? Confused-turned-cussing travelers throwing their toiletries and drinks into those big trash bins is perhaps not the best way to start the break. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 146 of the May 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

Jetset: Managing Your Miles

Hints and tips to get the most out of your air mileage

Still dreaming about that post-retirement, first-class jaunt around the world on an award ticket? Wake up and check your airline account! Your hard-earned miles may vanish before you have the chance to redeem them for that coveted seat in the front cabin.

United Airlines, the world’s largest trans-Pacific airline, has just restricted the validity of its frequent flier miles. From the end of 2007, members of UA’s Mileage Plus program will lose all their miles after 18 months of inactivity (down from 36 months). If you haven’t used United or its mileage program partners since July 1, 2006, you’ll kiss your miles zaijian at the end of this year. So much for the friendly skies. Other major U.S. airlines, Delta and US Airways among them, have made similar moves. Watch out if you still have miles with these airlines.

Fortunately, even if you have just quit that high-flying job, you can still breathe new life into your old United (or most international airlines’) miles quite easily. Redeeming a free ticket for Mom, staying at a partner hotel for a weekend getaway, charging an airline-affiliated credit card on groceries, or even ordering some flowers online for your long-distance sweetheart through one of the partner e-retailers – any one of these activities will extend the validity of your miles for another 18 months. So check your airline’s website for a complete list of mileage-earning opportunities.

But if you do have the money and/or reason to fly, there will soon be another nonstop option from Beijing to the US East Coast. After beating out rivals and winning the right to launch a new US-China route, United has linked the Chinese and U.S. capitals for the first time with a daily Beijing-Washington flight on a Boeing 747 – and they’re offering up to 10,000 bonus miles per roundtrip to boot. Log on to UA’s website for details on the promotion.

Now, for most sane people, it would be a no-brainer to choose a nonstop flight over connecting flights – but not when you’re a mileage guru. Did you realize that by flying Beijing to Washington via San Francisco instead of nonstop, you’ll earn 1,400 extra miles one-way? That’s 2,800 additional miles roundtrip – or 20 percent more! Not too bad; and you can offset journey grumbles by stocking up on some See’s Candies at the San Francisco airport. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 146 of the April 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.