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In China, Hainan Airlines is competing with the Far East's biggest carriers: the state-owned triple threat of China Eastern, China Southern and Air China.
So far, privately-owned Hainan has managed to hold its own against these giants and their virtually unlimited funding. Outside of Mainland China, Hainan has earned a reputation for quality, thanks, in large part, to its five-star rating from Skytrax. It is the first airline from the PRC to gain such a distinction.
Competing in the domestic market
Hainan Air's main hub, Haikou, is a gateway to the airline's namesake subtropical island. Formerly an outpost where dissidents would be exiled, the island is now a major vacation spot. Haikou is a popular destination on the domestic market, but Hainan opened a second hub at Beijing Capital Airport, which serves many of its international flights.
The airline has built a network of low-cost subsidiaries to supplement the domestic routes it flies. Its international strategy, meanwhile, seems to be an important part of its strategy for competing against the Big Three. It is here, outside of China's borders, that Hainan Airlines really stands out.
Becoming the Number One Chinese airline abroad
Hainan is using its new 787 Dreamliners to fly international routes. It claims to be the carrier with the most non-stop Dreamliner services between China and North America. Current services run from Chicago and Toronto to Beijing and from both Beijing and Shanghai to Boston and Seattle.
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Another China-U.S. route offers a glimpse of another aspect of Hainan's overseas strategy. Its Bay Area service does not connect Beijing with San Francisco. Rather, the flight, which originates in China's capital, goes to San Jose, which is not known as an international hub. A recently launched service to Los Angeles has the same secondary-city strategy. LAX is certainly a major hub, but the new route's city of origin, Changsha, is definitely not a major gateway in China.
The secondary destination strategy
Changsha's Huanghua International has the typical mixture of destinations for a second-tier city in China. Airlines there offer domestic service, a few flights to major Asia-Pacific capitals and seasonal service to popular vacation destinations in the region.
China Southern flies to Frankfurt, Germany, but Hainan's route to LA is the first direct service to the U.S. from Changsha. The booming Hunanese city is known for its movies and TV production, so perhaps Hainan saw a connection with LA.
More likely, however, the carrier wanted to get into a city that will see its profile rise in the near future. Changsha gets about a quarter of its substantial foreign investment from the Americas. It is also the site of the world's most ambitious construction project. Started in 2013, Sky City will be the tallest building on earth when it is completed. It will be 2,749 feet, which is 32 feet taller than Dubai's Burj Khalifa.
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Selling Hainan to America
Hainan is selling itself as an upscale option for transpacific flights in the U.S. It has even run ads on CNN. The most recent one, which has aired 66 times as of this writing, focuses on luxury in-flight services and also on the network that Hainan and its affiliates offer in the China. These routes include low cost service to the country's biggest tourist destinations.
Other international airlines have a larger presence on American TV. For example, Emirates has 16 ads in recent months, with the most visible one featuring a celebrity cameo by Jennifer Aniston. However, having a Chinese carrier on TV in the U.S. is rare and, even though the ads might seem cheesy compared to Emirates, it shows that Hainan is trying to gain a foothold in America and brand itself as THE Chinese choice for American fliers. Ads for the PRC's other carriers are virtually nonexistent on American TV.
Hainan is obviously intent on growing its presence in the U.S. Its modest cable TV ad campaign and its five-star nod from Skytrax have gotten it more attention in the Americas than its bigger, richer Chinese peers. By selling itself as a high-end airline, Hainan can set itself apart from its state-owned competitors in way that will be difficult for them to overcome. In the future we may see China Southern ads running during CNN's primetime shows, but it could be too little too late. For now, Hainan is closer that ever to branding itself as the best choice for Americans flying to China.
Josh Lew writes about travel, nature, special events and interesting places. His columns currently appear on Mother Nature...
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