The first Airbus A380 operated by a Chinese airline took off from Beijing yesterday morning carrying hundreds of passengers, including retired basketball star Yao Ming, and landed at Guangzhou's Baiyun International Airport after a three-hour flight featuring an 'imperial-style' lunch and a Chinese tea ceremony.
The flight made China Southern Airlines the seventh carrier in the world to operate the 500-seat superjumbo, which debuted in 2007, and the first to use it on a domestic flight.
Why the state-owned company flew the world's biggest plane, designed for international flights, on such a short route left many people in the industry puzzled, with politics being the most popular explanation.
More than 90 per cent of the seats on the plane were occupied and first and business class were sold out, the airline said yesterday, adding that it was the highest occupancy rate in China Southern's 23-year history. Most seats on flights in the next few days have also been booked, with just a few economy class seats still available. The A380, the first of five to be acquired by the airline, will operate between Beijing and Guangzhou each day, returning to the capital via Shanghai.
Ticket prices for the Beijing-Guangzhou route - discounted by 10 per cent - were just over 1,600 yuan (HK$1,950) for economy class and roughly double that for first class.
But some of the passengers on yesterday's maiden flight were unlikely to have paid for their tickets. Invited guests included Guangzhou Mayor Wan Qingliang, Guangzhou Military Region chief of staff General Zhuang Kezhu, respiratory disease specialist Professor Zhong Nanshan and Yao.
Industry observers say China Southern's purchase of A380s, with the second due to arrive in a few months, was fuelled by its ambition to attract premium passengers to international flights. But with its headquarters in Guangzhou, the airline had a relatively weak presence in Beijing, the mainland's biggest international travel hub.
'China Southern chose to make its maiden flight a domestic route from Beijing to Guangzhou more for politics than business,' an economics professor at Beihang University said, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. 'Of course they want to fly to New York or Paris, but the airline must first show its patriotism.'