What you need to know about China's "big four" airlines

By John Walton, June 28 2012
What you need to know about China's

The more you deal with China as a business partner the more time you'll spend flying with the "big four" Chinese carriers -- Air China, China Eastern, China Southern and Hainan Airlines.

They dominate the skies of the People's Republic, with only a few scattered smaller airlines (and the Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific/Dragonair group) also flying around China. 

And they're seriously massive airlines, including Asia's largest carrier and two of the world's top ten, on a 'number of passengers' basis.

We've put together this guide to each of the big four to detail each airline's main hubs, the major Chinese cities it serves, its subsidiary airlines (useful to know if you've booked a codeshare flight), its airline partnerships and the lounges it uses when flying from Australia.

First up: the only Chinese airline on which you can earn Australian frequent flyer miles is China Eastern, which is a Qantas Frequent Flyer partner (and future parent airline of Jetstar Hong Kong).

Air China is a Star Alliance and Etihad partner, while China Eastern and China Southern both made their bed with SkyTeam.

If you've flown on any of these airline, share your thoughts in a comment at the bottom of the article.

Air China

Overview: traditionally the flag carrier, Air China (airline code CA) is the third largest airline in China by number of passengers and flies from Sydney and Melbourne in Australia to Shanghai and Beijing.

Hubs: Air China is Beijing (PEK) based, with a sizeable second hub in Shanghai (SHA and PVG).

Also useful to get to: Hangzhou, Chongqing, Tianjin and Wuhan.

Subsidiary airlines: Air Macau, Beijing Airlines, Dalian Airlines, Shandong Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Tibet Airlines

Airline partnerships: Star Alliance. Also a Cathay Pacific partner.

Australian lounges: Air New Zealand lounges in Sydney and Melbourne

China Eastern Airlines

Overview: by passenger numbers, China Eastern (airline code MU) is the second largest Chinese airline. Subsidiary Shanghai Airlines flies from Melbourne (on a fairly old 767), with Joy Air and soon-to-be-launched Jetstar Hong Kong also in the family.

Hubs: China Eastern is based in Shanghai, at both Pudong (PVG) and Hongqiao (SHA) airports. Secondary hubs at Kunming (KMG) and Xi'an (XIY) serve southwestern and north-central China respectively.

Also useful to get to: Beijing, Hefei, Nanjing, Ningbo, Qingdao, Shijiazhuang, Taiyuan, Wuhan and Wuxi

Subsidiary airlines: Shanghai Airlines, Joy Air, Jetstar Hong Kong (with Qantas)

Airline partnerships: SkyTeam alliance, Qantas Frequent Flyer partner.

Australian lounges: Qantas lounges in Sydney and Melbourne

China Southern Airlines

Overview: China Southern (airline code CZ) is the largest airline in Asia, let alone China. CZ flies from Guangzhou to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth in Australia, and has recently been spruiking its Canton Route as an option to replace the Kangaroo Route between Australia and London.

Hubs: China Southern's main hub is in Guangzhou (CAN), with a large secondary hub in Beijing (PEK). Chongqing (CKG) in central China and Urumqi (URC) in the northwest are also China Southern hubs.

Also useful to get to: Changchun, Changsha, Dalian, Hangzhou, Jieyang, Shanghai, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Wuhan and Zhengzhou

Subsidiary airlines: Xiamen Airlines, Chongqing Airlines and Sichuan Airlines.

Airline partnerships: SkyTeam alliance.

Australian lounges: Air New Zealand lounges in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Qantas lounges in Perth.

Hainan Airlines

Overview: the smallest of the "big four", Hainan Airlines (airline code HU) is best known for its dozen-plus subsidiaries, especially daughter Hong Kong Airlines' all-business-class flights from Hong Kong to London. Based on the mainly holiday island of Hainan in the South China Sea, Hainan is the only one of China's largest airlines to be privately owned. Flights from Sydney to Shenzhen resume this October.

Hubs: Headquarters is at Haikou (HAK) on Hainan, with a large presence in Beijing (PEK) and Shenzhen (SZX).

Also useful to get to: Dalian, Guangzhou, Lanzhou, Taiyuan, Urumqi, Xi'an

Subsidiary airlines: Beijing Capital Airlines, China West Air, Deer Jet, Grand China Air, Hong Kong Airlines, Hong Kong Jet, Lucky Air, Tianjin Airlines, Yangtze River Express

Airline partnerships: no global alliance, but a partner with Etihad.

Australian lounges: Malaysia Airlines lounge in Sydney.

Your thoughts...

Have you flown these airlines? What did you think? What were the seats, service, food, airports and lounges like? Were you impressed or unimpressed?

Share your thoughts and discuss your experiences with other travellers in a comment below!

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

23 May 2012

Total posts 268

China Southern seems to have the edge. They fly an exclusive high-tier travel class - known as Luxourious First Class - to Sydney from Guangzhou, but will be introduced to other routes later especially to London so Australians will use them on teh newly-formed Canton Route.

I have also found that Guangzhou is an ideal place for business because a recent research shows that Australians prefer to go to a city that is not crowded (compared to Hong Kong and Beijing), has a variety of food (compared to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing) and have large business conference halls and facilities (compared to other cities). Guangzhou is also close to Australia so flights are pretty short and CZ has their own terminal so it is easy to move around.

I found Hainan Airlines' subsidiaries very confusing (it has 9 subsidiaries, with two in Hong Kong).

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

06 Apr 2011

Total posts 101

@aero-seat China Southern & Guangzhou may have those advantages for you but from checking the Skytrax website, China Southern is the lowest-rated of the four airlines (4.4/10 compared to Hainan at 8.9) while Guangzhou is the lowest rated airport (6.6/10 compared to 7.5 for Beijing & 8.7 for Hong Kong). In addition, Guangzhou is the third largest city in China & has a population density greater than Beijing but less than Shanghai & Hong Kong. Finally, I would argue that the variety of food in Guangzhou is greater than what is available in both Hong Kong & Shanghai. I haven't been to Beijing so can't offer any comments on the range of food in that city.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Jul 2012

Total posts 43

 have flown Business Class Air China Sinapore-Beijing return, as Singapore Airlines were booked solid (due to the Shanghrand Prix I thnk) and it was a fairly short notice booking. On flew Singapore Airlines Brisbane to Singapore return on the same trip.

The Air China business product is good value for money. Some slight communication difficulties when it came to ordering wine and cocktail, but very pleasant, attentive staff. While not as good as Singapore Airlines, the were also half the price.

Isn't there also a base in Chengdu for Air China?


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