Airlines to fend off fast-train threat

Updated: 2011-07-07 07:31

By Xin Dingding (China Daily)

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BEIJING - Under pressure from the 300 km/h Beijing-Shanghai rail service that started on June 30, the air transport industry has announced several initiatives to improve punctuality and strengthen cooperation with high-speed rail operators.

A publicity official from the North China regional area of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), who spoke on condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday that two meetings were held recently in an attempt to find ways to prevent the profitable Beijing-Shanghai air route from being sidelined by the new fast-train connection between the cities.

"There are not only measures to sharpen flights' competitiveness but there will also be cooperation, such as the fact that airlines will put passengers on fast trains if flights are seriously delayed or canceled," he said.

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"It will be a win-win situation and bring travelers convenience because they would otherwise have to waste a night and airlines would have to pay for a hotel."

A measure to improve flight punctuality is the fact that airlines operating the Beijing-Shanghai route will now park a spare plane in each of the two airports for use in emergencies. Airlines will also assign guides at airports to help passengers arriving late get on board in a short period of time, according to Beijing News on Wednesday.

Air traffic control departments are also being urged to give priority to Beijing-Shanghai flights when circumstances, such as thunderstorms or military drills, affect scheduling, the paper reported.

Wang Zhiping, a Shanghai-based engineer, said it was unclear to what extent the steps will improve the viability of flights between the two cities.

"Recent storms caused frequent flight delays, making the high-speed rail seem like really a good choice," he said. "Competition is a good thing because it is the only reason that the airlines have now decided to do something."

Airlines have slashed the price of some tickets, with the cheapest now being 360 yuan ($56) before the airport construction fee and the fuel surcharge. In comparison, the 300 km/h rail service charges 555 yuan for a second-class seat.

The Beijing-Shanghai route has been called a "golden passage" in the past because it has been one of the most lucrative routes in China.

The CAAC in 2007 coordinated airlines to jointly launch an express service that provides flights between two of China's most dynamic cities every half hour. Some 4.18 million people flew between the cities in 2006.

But after the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway entered service a week ago, the airlines faced direct competition from trains that appear to offer punctuality, no matter how bad the weather is.

Previous estimates by industry insiders said the opening of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line could take 20 percent of passengers away from the airlines.

While the long-term relationship between airlines and rail operators is not yet known, the industry website carried statistics from the first few days of the high-speed line on Wednesday and said it seemed to have had little impact on Beijing-Shanghai flights.

Planes between Beijing and Shanghai, it said, had an occupancy rate above 85 percent during the first three days of July.

But Beijing-Nanjing flights and Beijing-Jinan flights saw an obvious drop in their occupancy rate. Compared to an 80 percent occupancy in May and June, the two routes' fell to 65 percent and 50 percent respectively during the first three days of July.

Previously, high-speed railways have forced airlines to abandon routes between Wuhan and Guangzhou and between Hefei and Wuhan.

China Daily

(China Daily 07/07/2011 page5)


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