The Chinese airlines, with a few exceptions, have not attracted that much publicity during the past few months.
The country is bracing itself for hard economic times and the government is frantically using all means possible to keep their currency from devaluating further. Nonetheless, the country boasts many domestic and international carriers, of whom some are apparently fully on the expansion trail.
Official listings show more than 40 registered carriers operating in this vast country.
The list starts with Air China, through to Hainan Airlines and ending with Ying An Airlines.
One would think that they have enough on their plates coordinating operations in and out of the more than 30 airports these carriers use.
Strategy for expansion into Africa
Not all the carriers are interested in operating into the African continent.
However, the large ones are.
This move is supported by the Chinese government who is working closely with airlines such as Air China, China Southern and Hainan Airlines to open routes to Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and a few more destinations in the south western part of the continent.
China Southern has already started a 3 weekly service between Guangzhou and Nairobi.
This makes them the first Chinese carrier to start regular airline services there.
They have now been followed by Air China, who just announced that it will open flights from Beijing to Addis Ababa and Johannesburg as from this October.
Going a little further north, China Southern will also start a new route to Dubai and Cairo from Guangzhou in June of next year.
What makes Africa so interesting for China?
Simple question - simple answer.
Long term investment by China to keep a hold on the vast mineral wealth which lies in the earth in Africa and a supply chain, passenger and cargo, for the many thousands of Chinese engineers, workers and civil servants who are on seat there already for many years.
The Chinese investment in African carriers is also seen to be high on the government’s priority list.
The HNA Group, the parent company of Hainan Airlines, who recently announced their takeover of the large ground handling entity Swissport, invested in the Kenyan freighter airline, Astral Airlines.
Astral has a small fleet consisting of one Boeing 747F, one 727F and two DC-30Fs.
It can be assumed that Hainan wants to use this carrier for feeder services from Nairobi to other areas within Africa to supply the Chinese engineers with foodstuffs and supplies from home as well as machinery parts and so on.
Cargo will play an important role
The Chinese carriers will not operate into that many different African airports, but will concentrate on a few hubs such as Nairobi, Addis, and Johannesburg
Therefore, all the more important for them to set up reliable cargo feeder services into the outlying areas.
There are no immediate plans for any Chinese carrier to start an all freighter operation into any of the above mentioned destinations.
It will surely come sometime in the future, but the belly capacity on the Boeing 777s and Airbus long range aircraft will be enough for the present to bring Chinese exports into Africa.
This is seen as being the market of the future for China, especially considering the continued drop in exports to Europe and the USA during the past months.
Growing Chinese airline presence in Africa expected
Chinese carriers will not make money in the foreseeable future on any operation in China.
Back in 2006 China Southern opened a Beijing-Dubai-Lagos route which was ended in 2009 after the airline reported net losses of almost 70 million U.S. dollars.
On top of this, weak infrastructure and high maintenance (MRO) costs in Africa still make this a challenging affair.
The Chinese passenger market to Africa, although growing, continues to be a scattered affair and operations are faced with traffic rights restrictions.
Therefore, the policy of concentrating on a few hubs may well be the best way for Chinese carriers to get a stronger foothold in this area.
Despite all of this, we are sure we‘ll see a fast growing Chinese airline presence in Africa.
John Mc Donagh