Underpinned by One Belt and One Road (OBOR) and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), era of new Air Silk Roadhas come into being with spectacular roll-out of China Southern Airlines (CSA) flight operation from Lahore to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang autonomous region in far northeast of China, setting off ripple effects on Sino-Pak profound and immersive relations.
Inception of new Air Silk Road has set in motion deep and synergic aviation integration between Pakistan and China. After the onset of CSA flights from Lahore to Urumqi, air trips between both countries are highly likely to swell as Lahore, hub of business and trade activities, is capital of Punjab, biggest province of Pakistan hosting more than 100 million populations. The unprecedented development has created first air channel between China and Punjab province since Sino-Pak ties started in 1951.
The CSA has also planned to start flight between Lahore to Guangzhou, another potential destination for Pakistan traders and businessmen from 28th August, 2018. CSA is already operating in Pakistan from Urumqi to Islamabad in 1994 maintaining bilateral relations up and running without any suspension over the last 24 years. Realizing hefty potential, Lahore-Urumqi route has successfully been established and operationalized. No doubt this route is going to become new air travelling sensation in the region.
With passage over Karakorum which is part of CPEC, it is convincing that CSA intends to launch a series of preferential policies to help both people of China and Pakistan to enjoy most convenient air trip at affordable price.
One of the impressive points in the fresh move will be its tangible impact over air business between both countries. Owing to inauguration of new flight operation, Chinese as well as local competitors will engage in healthy completion. To excel in performance and take lead to other in efficiency, they will have to introduce more customer-friendly policies both for passenger and cargo flights.
Pakistan is going to be bigger beneficiary of CSA’s exclusive entry as latter has given impetus to local brand new six airlines to get alert and begin flexing their muscles to enter into Pakistan aviation industry teeming with extensive business and lucrative profits.
Among them Air Sial, who acquired a license by PCCA to embark on domestic flight operations, is an airline owned by Sialkot Chamber of Commerce. It carries already four planes to operate soon. Next is GoGreen Airways is planning to function after getting pilot registration. Askari Air Pakistan has also submitted its formal application for Regular Public Transport (RPT) Airline License. It is private to be regulated by Fauji Foundation as well as private business partners.
Afeef Zara Airway Affef also applied for license and is waiting for green signal to put planes in operation. Liberty Air is also new kid in the block with seeking license from Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority. United Airways Pakistan Limited (Air Pakistan) is also planning to operate soon.
Owing to growing opportunities to boost up Pakistan air industry, IATA (International Air Transport Association) forecast Pakistan domestic air travel will rise at least 9.5 percent per year, more than two times faster than the world annual growth rate of 4.1 percent over the next 20 years. The Indian and Brazilian domestics markets will increase at 6.9 and 4.9 percent respectively. Chinese domestic air travel market will transcend the US market to claim the number 1 spot by 2030, according to figures released by IATA.
In a visible indication of Pakistan’s rising middle class opting air travel, the number of domestic and international air travelers in Pakistan went up by 8 percent to 17.9 million in fiscal year 2013-14 compared to previous year, recording the fastest growth in passenger traffic in the last three years, according to data provided by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
It is expected that besides surge in local competition, professional race among the Chinese airlines to outperform one another will get underway proving to be catalyst to Pakistan economy, commerce and trade.
China Southern Airline is ranked number one in Asia and stood third in the world in terms of its size and wide operation. It operates largest fleet, most developed route network and largest passenger capacity of any airline in China. Boasting more than 660 aircrafts, it is first airline in the world that operates A380 and Boeing 787 at same time. Each day CSA has more than 2000 flights to 224 destination of around 40 countries and regions. The route network of CSA reaches 1062 destination in 177 countries by joining in SkyTeam.
In the backdrop of CPEC projects, CSA Lahore-Urumqi air route seems to change the aviation dynamic in the regions. Electrified vibrancy in fresh air links between Pakistan and China was truly witnessed in CSA maiden promotional ceremony participated by Acting Consul General of China in Lahore Mr. Wang Daxue, Deputy General Manager of CSA Mr Feng Yuejun and Deputy commissioner Lahore Sumair Ahmed.
CSA is established star in airline industry in China. Its airline traffic has increased up to 9.8 percent so far in 2018. China Southern has increased its annual traffic by 117%, growing from 58.24 million passengers a decade ago to 126.30 million last year, and the airline’s latest statistics show that the growth rate is not only being maintained, but is starting to accelerate. Between January and March, China Southern flew 33.25 million passengers, up 9.8% versus the 30.29 million that it flew during the same quarter of 2017. Last year the SkyTeam member flew 126.30 million people, representing an increase in traffic, when compared to 2016, of over 10%. That means 2017 was the first year since 2010 in which China Southern has posted a double-digit growth in passenger numbers. If the carrier is able to maintain its 9.8% growth rate from Q1 for the remainder of 2018, then the airline can expect to carry around 138.68 million passengers for the calendar year.
Guangzhou is by far the airline’s leading hub, with its operating 39.76 million seats to and from the airport serving the capital of Guangdong Province in 2018. The carrier has increased its seat capacity output at Guangzhou by 3.8% this year when compared to 2017, with it growing faster than the airline’s second largest hub in Beijing. Despite the capacity limitations at China’s leading airport, China Southern has still managed to increase its seat offering there by 3.5% this year.
Hopes run high that fresh CSA footprints will entice other international airlines to start new routes from Lahore to their respective destinations. Pakistan awaits for such auspicious time to get charged up and rises as shining economic power.
The writer is a senior journalist working for China Today and China Radio International. He also contributes to national mainstreams newspapers on economy, international relation and human rights. He is a fellow of ICFJ and is a recipient of China-friendly Netizen 2017 award.