Until the 1980s, civil airlines in China were administered by the military authorities, so the concept of providing a warm and welcoming cabin. service was not a priority. Although professional flight attendants were recruited by Air China in the early 1.970s, cabin service amounted to little more than the provision. of orange juice made from concentrate powder. A smile was not obligatory.
Today, with a growing number of Chinese airlines opening up links to foreign destinations, the need to compete on equal terms with the international carriers has become apparent. Improved living standards and greater disposable income. have encouraged more Chinese to travel abroad, but- many still prefer foreign. carriers to local airlines.
A policy of consolidation
Bearing in. mind the `orange juice' tradition and the lack,of any motivation to be nice to passengers, it is hardly surprising that a prejudice against the home product should have arisen ?even if it is no longer entirely justified. Last year 5.05 million passengers travelled to or from overseas countries on Chinese airlines, an increase of 15 per cent over 1996. By 2000 it is anticipated that around 100 mil-lion passengers a year c ill be travelling on Chinese carriers on domestic and overseas routes. So there is now a strong incentive to raise service standards.
Yet, far from encouraging the formation of -new airlines to cope with the boom in traffic, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has embarked upon a policy of consolidation because, of 27 approved airlines, only six are thought to be financially viable. At the same time, training programmes for cabin. crew have been refined and updated.
The formation of a co-operative group called the New Star Air Alliance in September last year is perceived as marking -the beginning of a consolidation. The existence of this co-operative group,' headed by Hainan Airlines, shows that China, once again. faced with something of a crisis in aviation, can take appropriate measures even if they are unpalatable in the short term.
For example, a spate of accidents in. the earl, 1990s resulted in the introduc-tion of several safety measures and this succeeded in reversing the trend, with the result that a 29-month period ending December 1996 was entirely accident-free. It is arguable that without the strong control imposed by CAAC, this turn-about in safety standards could not have been achieved.
Measures designed to improve financial results and raise cabin service standards could prove equally successful. Major suppliers such as Boeing and Airbus have made important contributions as both realise that without high standards of safety and service, China's airlines cannot compete on equal terms with established international carriers.
"Chinese airlines have improved phenomenally over the past few years and cabin crews on CAAC airlines now realise that they need to keep business," says Mr Helge Stavonhagen, Lufthansa's recently retired regional director based in Beijing. With safety in mind, the training facilities installed by Airbus and Boeing have placed emphasis upon. cabin crew trainers which enable fire-fighting and escape procedures to be practised.
These procedures include dinghy training, so that all cabin staff become familiar with the equipment which. must be used in the event of a ditching. The CASC (China Aviation Supplies Import and Export- Corporation) // Airbus Training and Support Centre near Beijing was inaugurated in Mav last year, while four cabin crew trainers for China Southwest Airlines were delivered to Chengdu in late 1997. The latter includes a Boeing 757! Airbus A340 emergency evacuation. unit, as well as 757 cabin. service and 737/ 757 door trainers.
Located at the Tainzhu Airport Industrial Zone, some 30km from Beijing, the CASC/Airbus training centre is modelled on those run by Aeroformation in Toulouse and Miami. Already training some 600 Air China cabin attendants in the operation of doors and escape slides, the Beijing facility is also providing an opportunity to focus on crew resource management training for both cockpit and cabin crews.
Crew resource management is alien to Chinese culture in that it encourages positive criticism, regardless of the age or sex of the critic. Thus, a cabin. stewardess will be encouraged to report upon a perceived hazard., such as an engine fire, rather than assume that the emergency is being ban-died on the flight deck. In. the same way, it a young first officer judges his senior captain to have misjudged a situation., he would be encouraged to make an. appropriate challenge.
Such training techniques emphasise the importance of communication and a positive approach. to mistakes, as part of a continual leaguing process. It the Chinese authorities succeed in getting the technique .accepted as the norm throughout civil aviation in the country, it will have set an example for others to follow.
Boeing's simulators at Guanghuan, Zhuhai and Beijing are concerned primarily with pilot training, but over the past 15 years the company has also helped with cabin crew= training. Although safety must take priority, the need to acquire the techniques necessary to win. customer loyalty has led. Air China to send. flight attendants to Germany, }long Kong, Japan and Singapore for training.
Confidence in standards
That was before the establishment in 1992 of its own multi-functional training centre in Beijing, providing Air China with .a facility that can accommodate 240 flight attendants. In addition to learning emergency drills, trainees are instructed in make-c(p application techniques, and how to promote a positive image for the airline. Cabin mock-ups .for the Boeing 737, 747 and 76 enable trainees to practice the art of serving passengers.
Lufthansa's Stavonhageri says that Chinese airlines are unreasonably modest about their achievements. For example, all cabin creirs on CAAC airliners are required to become proficient in English by the end of this year and more .Chinese carriers are turning to Western consultants to provide training.
In collaboration. with the Training Division of Speedw ing, the British Airways' consi_iltancy Regent Language Training is engaged in the provision. of English language instruction for China Southern as part of an on-going pro-gramme which began two years ago. Regent. sends instructors to Guangzhou where groups of 20 cabin crew attend an eight-week course -which to date some 200 have completed.
"All candidates for the course had some English before it began but of course there is inore to speaking the language than merely- using the right swords," says Regent's principal, Graham White. "So the service aspect is covered as well as routine announcements, and students. are encouraged to converse,rather than repeat phrases by rote."
Role play in a cabin mock-up provides the right environment in. which to practice English. and after each session, students are encouraged to analyse the exercise with their instructor. Most of the China Southern students subsequently function as pursers on international flights. White notes that participants take part in the course with enthusiasm.
China Southern and China Eastern are both quoted on international stock exchanges, the latter recently concluding a code sharing agreement with American Airlines (see Travel News).
Both carriers gain. from such an arrangement, American Airlines accessing a market from which it is currently excluded — under the aviation. agreement between the two countries it may not operate its own aircraft between the LIS and China while China Eastern will expand its market network.
Effectively American now has the right to operate trans-Pacific routes, while. China Eastern has extended. its net-work to the LS mid-west, east coast and southern. regions. However, the implications in using a partner's aircraft and cress' extend. beyond a simple joint arrangement; important areas such as reservations, departure control, customer liaison. and cabin services must also be co-ordinated to ensure a 'seam-less travel. experience'. It is a measure of the success of China Eastern in matching international competition standards that American is confident that seamless travel will be provided via the west coast transition hubs.
The decision to recruit seven Japanese stewardesses to fly on its Shanghai-Tokyo route marks an effort to achieve high standards on China l astern's international services and was the first time that foreigners had been employed in this way. Meanwhile, some Air China cabin crews are gaining experience with other carriers, for example working on. Austrian Airlines services between Beijing/ Shanghai and Vienna. Having discontinued its own services on the route a felw years ago, Air China takes a block of seats on each of the Austrian Airlines flights, providing its own cabin crew's to service Chinese passengers.
In an effort to improve the perception of Chinese airline catering, several companies have established facilities to serve both domestic and international airlines. 1 he Beijing Air Catering Co Ltd (BACL) was the first such enterprise, formed in 1980 as a joint venture between Air China and Hong Kong business interests. Capable of producing 45,000 meals a day, BACL is currently catering for 22 Chinese carriers and 29 foreign airlines.
In September 19% it started facing competition from Beijing Airport Inflight Kitchen (BAIK). This is another joint enterprise, this time between. Beijing Airport and Singapore Airport Terminal Service, and it is said to have captured some 25 per cent market share. Numbering Air France, Singapore Airlines, Swissair and Qantas among its customer list, BAIK also supplies China Northwest, China Southern, Yunnan and Xinjiang among its domestic clients. Bearing in mind the high standards set by the foreign carriers, BAIK must be regarded as a world-class caterer.
Competition is also keen in Shanghai. where a sister-company of BACL vies for contracts with a new facility formed by the Shanghai Airport Authority. Such is the size of the market in China, however, that enterprising caterers can reasonably expect success. Nevertheless, the recent economic downturn experienced by mane Southeast Asian countries has seen profit margins fall as demand for cheaper catering without loss of quality has grown..
Getting the basics right
In endeavouring to match international competition, China's airlines would do well to study a recent survey by the International rAir -Transport Association which. revealed. a marked disparity between the facilities passengers say they want and what they actually use. Air China's recently-delivered Airbus A340 is equipped with personal audio and video systems on all seats in first and business class, ss hile telephones and faxes are also available. But sometimes the expense of installing such complex equipment and keeping it maintained does not seem to be justified by the extent to which special services are used.
'Ihe China international Airport Equipment and Airline Services Exposition to be held in. Beijing from May 12-15 this year will no doubt pro-vide an opportunity to view~' some of the latest developments in. passenger services. However, in their anxiety to match international service standards, Chinese airlines would do well to thoroughly research the genuine desires of its passengers. Safety, punctuality and adequate food served in a courteous and friendly manner are the fundamentals that need to be achieved if China is to realise its ambitions to propel one of its top three carriers into the world's 40 largest by the year 2000.