Times are hard for airlines all over the world. Skyrocketing fuel prices, overcapacity, bankruptcies, a sluggish world market and consolidation have all taken their toll on the aviation industry over the past year.
According to the International Air Transport Association, after months of increases, air traffic worldwide dipped this past September for the first time in five years, with passenger traffic falling 2.9% year-on-year. Asia Pacific carriers have taken the hardest hit, reporting a 10.6% decline. Recent easing of global oil prices has done little to counterbalance the global economic slowdown.
Yet in the midst of the carnage, one market segment has performed better than most: the Chinese business traveler. Over the past three years, Chinese business travelers rose from non-existence to fourth on a top-10 flight markets list compiled by airline Air France-KLM.
Antti Nieminen, a global marketing communications commercial division manager for Finnair, has also seen strong performance from outbound Chinese travelers. He said air traffic between Asia and Europe is growing by at least 10% annually.
Know your market
With increasing numbers of Chinese business travelers taking to the air, knowing how to cater to this market is key. According to Mark Arxhoek, Air France-KLM’s regional commercial director for Greater China, this still-emerging class of travelers often has demands different to those of Western business travelers.
"Chinese business travelers have high expectations regarding onboard comfort and on-time flight performance," he said. They want "outstanding human relationships, services and facilities" and products that deliver "a strong feeling of comfort and a memorable travel experience."
Derek Huang, a 36-year-old television producer who flies at least six times a year between China and California, said that though price is a factor when he chooses a carrier, in-flight services are important as well.
"Air China consistently provides better food and beverage services [than other airlines]," Huang said. He contrasted Air China’s services with American carrier Northwest Airlines, whose in-flight staff hand out small packages of instant noodles as meals. But airlines with an eye for detail – like Emirates Airlines, which paints starry night skies on the inside of its cabins – are more likely to see his money.
The language barrier
Having Mandarin-speaking staff that can aid passengers filling out customs forms, provide information and even help arrange hotel accommodations and transport is also highly prized by Chinese patrons. Yet, given China’s size and linguistic diversity, sometimes Mandarin is not good enough. Finnair ensures there are at least two cabin crew members on each flight originating out of China who are familiar with the departure region’s local dialect in addition to Mandarin.
Further, Helsinki Vantaa Airport, Finnair’s main hub, was the first in Europe to introduce Chinese signs and Mandarin-speaking staff to greet passengers arriving from China. This October, Air France-KLM followed suit, introducing a major initiative (the Focus On China project), which is aimed at tailoring in-flight services and training cabin crews and airport staff to better meet the expectations of Chinese consumers.
Airlines are also submitting to Chinese demands for new routes. Air France-KLM is aiming to expand service routes to Panama City, Panama and Trieste, Italy, while American carrier Delta Airlines has announced plans to merge with Northwest Airlines, linking its Latin American and Northwest Asian routes.
In China, however, route expansion plans are hampered by the deteriorating macroeconomic climate and competition for limited numbers of flight slots. The crisis has forced Finnair to temporarily alter its plan for Guangzhou – a previously planned expansion has now been rerouted to Hong Kong, where there is more traffic.
These airlines may face leaner times, but those with the right appeal for Chinese travelers stand to make it through the "survival game," according to Finnair’s chief China representative Mikko Rautio.
"The economically strong and operationally flexible will survive," he said.