On Sunday April 11th, British Airways flew its first non-stop flight from London to Beijing. "We think it is going to be a very popular flight indeed," says the airline s China manager, Charles Phelps-Penry. If you wanted proof of the extent of the demand, you need look no further than the competition operating the route. No fewer than six European airlines now fly non-stop to Beijing ? Air France, Swissair, Finnair and Lufthansa ? and have done for a number of years now.
So, why has British Airways been so slow to tap in on this swarm of Europeans needing to get to Bering as fast and conveniently as possible.
"We have been trying to secure a flight for some time. There have been a number of things that have stood in the way of it, not least of which is judging the right time to do it," explains Phelps-Penry. "Also, the question of Hong Kong does create certain sensitivities, perhaps increasingly as we run up to 1997, since the Chinese are becoming more and more involved in certain affairs of Hong Kong which have an impact after the take-over and particularly air rights."
It is also true to say that British businessmen, who will be prominent users of the new service, have not been as quick off the mark in spotting the opportunities in China as many of its European neighbours.
"This may have something to do with the fact that British businessmen tend to be working very much more independently in the sense of receiving less government support than some of the European competitors. We've noticed for example that a number of European governments have been very active indeed in coming into China and supporting their business communities in ways that the British government doesn't. I don't mean a criticism of the British government by that, but the British tend to do it in a different way."
But the mood has changed, says Phelps-Penry ? a clear indication of this being the large mission that visited China late last year. "British business is back," he says.
Though the business traveller from Britain will be a key user of the new service, British Airways also expects a high level of interest from the international community, especially Europe, Africa and possibly the east coast of America. "Business travel to China these days is booming in many respects," says Phelps-Penry.
Booming it may be, but the real profits still lie in tourism. "In many ways the tourism sector is growing infinitely more rapidly than the business sector and in fact has probably helped to spur the growth in business. The bulk of people coming to China are undoubtedly tourists and that has enabled our competitors in particular, and now us, to put on pretty impressive schedules. Lufthansa are now flying four times a week, and not for the businessmen. The tourists are the bread and butter of the group and there is every sign that this is growing very steadily and will continue to grow for some time."
With the growth in tourism not expected to slacken, British Airways can realistically toy with the idea of daily flights. Currently, in its new summer schedule the airline is operating two flights a week. The non-stop operates on a Sunday from Beijing, and takes ten and a half hours flying time. The second operates on a Wednesday from London to Beijing and on a Thursday from Beijing to London. This flight flies BA's old route, stopping in Hong Kong before continuing its journey. It may not be long before daily flights can be implemented. "It certainly seems as if the market will be able to support that sort of schedule within the next few years."
Other destinations within China are also under consideration. Shanghai is top of the list of future possibilities, with Guangzhou shortly behind it. "We want to operate as many routes as we can. Clearly we have got to find ways of operating to other destinations in China in a way that is profitable."
One destination that the airline has recently secured has been Taiwan ? though it is not a straight forward story.
"We wanted to operate to Taiwan for quite some time and have been discussing it with the various parties concerned. We talked to the authorities here [Beijing], we talked to the authorities in Taiwan and we feel that we have found a way, listening to the advice, and taking into account the different sensibilities on both sides, that allows us to operate a route in a way that gives us a profitable return. So we set up a subsidiary company, British Asia Airways to allow us to operate to Taipei. We are happy with that solution ? and it allows all three sides to be happy."
The arrangement has meant that the airline can now operate twice weekly flights, though any aircraft of new British Asia Airways flying the route will not be permitted to display any flags, insignia or livery with official connotations. To meet this demand, BA has repainted the tail of one of its jumbo jets with Chinese characters.
Further access to destinations in mainland China may be facilitated by CAAC's announcement in September last year that it was opening up Chinese aviation to foreign investment and participation, as well as introducing foreign management techniques. Phelps-Penry admits that British Airways is currently "studying carefully" the opportunities to cooperate with Chinese aviation that currently exist, but stresses that we should not hold our breath for any imminent announcements.
"It is far too early to talk about taking stakes. We are not even sure that the Chinese authorities will allow the foreign carriers to actually take stakes in their own airlines and if they did, it is likely that they would be some of the lesser airlines, not the major ones."
But the fact remains that China's poor airline record and inadequate infrastructure represent untold potential for the involvement of foreign airlines. And British Airways is keeping its eyes and ears open for the first opportunity to play its part. *