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Flying 'roo in danger of becoming roadkill

<i>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</i>

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

Two weeks ago I sent an email to my contact at China Southern Airlines as part of the daily maintenance of nurturing future column material. Early this year I had written that Qantas long-haul international could disappear within 10 years. I was looking towards October, when a new frontal assault begins as China Southern launches daily flights on its ''Canton route'' to London in competition with the famed ''kangaroo route''. I underestimated the scale of this challenge.

China Southern may be obscure to most Australians and its base city, Guangzhou, is similarly unknown, but it is a force to be reckoned with. The day after my email was sent I was dispatched to the Chinese consulate for a visa, placed in a media study group and within days was on a flight to Guangzhou. Suddenly I was attending a banquet where a string quartet of young Chinese women in white gowns was playing Click Go the Shears. Surreal. The week before, the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, received similar treatment.

Call it soft power. With Chinese state-owned companies such as China Southern, it is impossible to know where company strategy ends and government policy begins. China Southern may be obscure in Australia now but it is the fourth-largest airline in the world in passengers carried. A few years ago Etihad was a very obscure name in Australia. Now people attend AFL games at Etihad Stadium and the brand is mainstream and respected. Ditto Emirates Airlines. Now these three carriers represent a collective mortal threat to Qantas international.

When I told the Herald's travel editor about the vortex of soft power and hard sell I was encountering, she said, ''No one is more aggressive in the Australian market than China Southern. No one.'' Nor does any airline have its latent muscle power. It is the biggest airline inside China, by far. It will carry more than 600,000 passengers into Australia this year. It is adding a new jet every week and will have a fleet of 500 by the year end. It will carry about 90 million passengers in 2012. Qantas and Jetstar will carry about 36 million.

China Southern plans to be bringing a million Chinese a year to Australia by 2020. With a leading domestic position but a modest international operation, it must expand outwards. Three years ago, the airline's president and chief executive, Tan Wan'geng, decided Australia was its No. 1 market for expansion. Since then, growth has exploded, with passenger numbers up 50 per cent, flights trebling from 14 to 42 a week, and Australian destinations increased from two to five with the announcement, last week, of a service to Cairns.

It was easy to see why the banquets I attended were thick with Australian tourism and airport officials falling over themselves to accommodate China Southern's ambitions.

Yet even these numbers do not explain the scale of the airline's ambition. It is about to embark on constructing Airline City, a 10-year project that will cost well over a billion dollars. The centrepiece will be the airline's own university. Imagine the feeding frenzy of bureaucrats, lawyers and environmentalists if a project like this were proposed in Australia. Which is why nothing like this is envisaged in Australia.

The head of the CSIRO, Megan Clark, just back from a visit to Beijing, says Australia is starting to lag in research, development and patent applications compared with East Asia. It is the mark of a nation not using enough of its brain.

The Chinese want to use brainpower, not just horsepower. I received a detailed briefing from Norbert Marx, the general manager of China Southern's maintenance joint venture, GAMECO, which is training engineers and mechanics at a rate of almost 400 a year. It will treble its maintenance capacity in Guangzhou by 2017. It intends to be one of the biggest aviation maintenance operations in the world, competing with Lufthansa Technik, where Marx was a senior executive. Qantas is a customer of GAMECO and it is impossible not to see Qantas outsourcing more maintenance to operations such as this. China Southern's ambition reflects Guangzhou's ambition. When the city government realised it needed a signature building to lift the generic skyline it built Canton Tower, the tallest tower in the world. Completed in 2010, it is twice the height of the Sydney Tower and almost twice the height of the Eiffel Tower. (This year it yielded its tallest title to the Tokyo Skytree.) I did not understand Guangzhou until I saw it from this tower, then I saw central planning on a massive scale.

As for the service on China Southern, was it up to the standard of Qantas and its peer group? No. Even the CEO, Mr Tan, was forthcoming on this: ''Our difficulty is service quality. There is much room for improvement. But we want to compete with Qantas on service quality.'' Was the service on my flights poor? No. China Southern's obvious advantage is cost. It is offering published round-trip fares to London of $1800 economy and $5800 business class, where it has almost flatbed seats. When the Boeing 787 comes into service to London it will lift comfort standards.

To support growth plans Guangzhou's new Baiyun International Airport is expanding from two runways to five. (Beijing Airport, being Beijing, has plans for nine runways.) In contrast, at one end of the Canton route, London Heathrow can't even build a third runway. At the other end, Sydney Airport is responding to the growth challenge with one hand tied behind its back, wrapped in red tape.

Correction: An incorrect reference to Sydney's lord mayor, Clover Moore, visiting China as a guest of China Southern has been removed.

Paul Sheehan travelled to Guangzhou last week as part of a media group hosted by China Southern Airlines.

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39 comments

  • Flying 'roo in danger of becoming roadkill
    It can't come soon enough

    Commenter
    DGA1948
    Location
    Mackay
    Date and time
    August 20, 2012, 7:34AM
    • Like at the end of Dr Strangelove.....Alan Joyce straddling a plane & riding it down to the gound yelling Yeeeh Haaaa

      Commenter
      Bazza
      Date and time
      August 20, 2012, 12:28PM
    • Surely Paul it is the unions fault and not QANTAS's fault for the declining service standards. Who would have thought a business needs to take care of customers and not simply attempt to strip costs out?

      Commenter
      Franky
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 20, 2012, 4:02PM
  • Best meal I ever had on a flight was with China Southern. Bring it on.

    Commenter
    John
    Date and time
    August 20, 2012, 8:02AM
    • Recently flew China Southern and the meal was no where as good as Emerates but quite satisfactory. Value for money, China Southern was tops. Then when you compare what you pay for Qantas. Maybe 20 years ago Qantas was the best but other airlines have now caught up and overtaken the Flying Kangaroo.

      Commenter
      Homer Ridgemoore
      Date and time
      August 20, 2012, 8:31AM
    • My wife recently flew with China Southern to Europe and back and was very disappointed with the experience. In short, the food was bland, there were no snacks and the hostesses needed lessons in manners and English. Further, Guangzhou airport was dirty and lacked a variety of shops, resteraunts, etc.

      Well may they try to expand into Australia but they had better increase their service levels to cater to their 'target' market.

      Commenter
      Mickle
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 20, 2012, 9:49AM
  • Not if the staff have anything to do with it. Battered and bruised over the last ten years of failing leadership, they have become more determined than ever to resurrect the Roo and return it to its rightful place in the sky. Had they retained Borgetti they would be already flying straight and level right now instead of flying with one aileron still out, and dragging Jetstar behind it. The retired and current staff will move heaven and earth to keep this Icon going, and no more will allow poor decisions like the failure to purchase the B777, which has done great damage to the airline. Fly China Airways if you wish, but I know what airline I like to fly, because after 25 years of service in the company I knew just how good the engineering and the pilot training is. That is not to say that any other airline does not meet the criteria, but I know what I saw, and it was good.

    Commenter
    Annie
    Location
    Hunter Valley NSW
    Date and time
    August 20, 2012, 8:03AM
    • the staff are a large part of the problem - a more self-important group I have never come across in a service industry. maybe it's not part of a service industry, maybe it's run for the employees

      Commenter
      hellsy
      Date and time
      August 20, 2012, 4:30PM
  • I just returned from a trip to Europe during which I flew for the first time with Emirate Airlines. On the outward trip I flew into Vienna and returned via Athens. Dubai is a 14 hour flight from Sydney and is the change over point for destinations within the Middle East and all the major cities of Europe. We flew onto Vienna and had a 2 day stopover in Dubai on the return trip. To say I was surprised by this city is putting it mildly This transport hub in the middle of the desert is mind blowing. We went on a day tour of the city which finished with High Tea in the 7 star hotel the Burj Al Arab,simply amazing. If China Southern Airlines are planning the same thing then it better be good. You point out how Sydney is playing the game with one hand behind its back which is true. The main reason of course is Premier O'Farrell's opposition to a second Sydney Airport. The three airlines you use for your story are all owned by government. Something unfortunately Qantas cannot compete with. This is the New World Order of Travel. The United Arab Emirates are in the process of building another Airport which will be for the sole use of The Emirate Airline. The answer for Qantas is probably to fly only to Dubai and let Emirates fly into Europe.

    Commenter
    Rob
    Location
    Gymea Bay
    Date and time
    August 20, 2012, 8:31AM
    • "... Australia is starting to lag in research, development and patent applications compared with East Asia. It is the mark of a nation not using enough of its brain."
      What little there is. With a schooling and university system that is profit, not outcomes-based, and teaching professions as poorly paid as they are, it is no surprise that Australia is outpaced not just by China. This is aggravated by a low-skill immigration program and an outflux of those who have something more to offer than a loud mouth and brawns. But such a population is far easier to convince of the 'market fixes everything' doctrine so popular in the 'Anglo-sphere'.

      Commenter
      Brenda Loots
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 20, 2012, 8:40AM

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