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Chinese airlines have finally kick-started international growth, expanding 37% in the first eight months of 2015. This equates to an additional 7.38 million passengers in 8M2015 compared to 8M2014. This almost equals the 7.39m passengers Chinese carriers added between 8M2010 and 8M2014. The volume growth Chinese carriers used to achieve over four years is now being achieved over just a single year.
With countries continuing to liberalise visas for Chinese nationals, and the Chinese government directing airlines to expand internationally, this faster international growth is the new norm. Although most international Chinese traffic is short haul, the accelerated growth is seen with long haul expansion: Sichuan Airlines launched long haul flights in 2012 and not another Chinese carrier went long haul until Xiamen Airlines in Jul-2015. Beijing Capital Airlines followed in Sep-2015, and 2016 could see two more airlines – Tianjin Airlines and Tibet Airlines – fly long haul. 2016 will see at least 10 Chinese airlines operate widebody aircraft. This report looks at the long haul growth from China's secondary carriers that will increasingly become intercontinental names.
Ethiopian Airlines is planning further long-haul network expansion in 2016 with new destinations in Asia and North America. The expansion is made possible by the delivery of Ethiopian’s first batch of 343-seat A350-900s along with additional 270-seat Boeing 787-8s.
New York is in line to become Ethiopian’s fourth destination in North America in Jun-2016, joining Toronto, Washington Dulles and recently launched Los Angeles. Ethiopian is also looking at Chicago and Houston, which could be launched in 2017.
In Asia Ethiopian is planning to launch services to Chengdu, Ho Chi Minh, Jakarta and Singapore. East Asia has been the main driver of Ethiopian’s rapid expansion in recent years – with two destinations added in 2015 for a total of nine – and will continue to be a focus as Africa’s largest airline doubles its fleet over the next decade.
As questions reverberate about China's economy and slowing growth, what are the impacts to Chinese aviation, home to the world's second-largest domestic market?
The good news is 1Q2015 traffic from China's airlines is comfortably robust, increasing 13% and surpassing 100 million passengers for the first time. Domestic growth remained at 11%, with Chinese airlines carrying an additional 9 million domestic passengers in 1Q2015 compared to 1Q2014 – equivalent to an additional 656 737 flights a day.
International growth has picked up giant steam, surging 57% in 1Q2015 – equivalent to an additional 64 A380 flights a day. But overall international traffic remains small for Chinese airlines, accounting for only about 7% of total carriage – the same as in 2008 but higher than more recent years. Regional growth has slowed to 5% as Hong Kong and Macau are not as attractive as they used to be.
More worryingly for Taiwan, that market is starting to show a contraction in Chinese visitors, perhaps as they head to seemingly more exotic regional Asian points like Japan, Korea and Thailand. Those three countries will attract the highest growth from Chinese airlines in summer 2015.
Sichuan Airlines is due to take delivery of an Airbus A320 family aircraft on 22-May-2015, giving the Chengdu-based carrier 100 aircraft. Sichuan becomes the seventh airline in China to have a fleet of 100 or more aircraft. Globally Sichuan will be the world's 50th largest airline by fleet size. Sichuan intends to take another 100 aircraft over the next decade.
Sichuan's hinterland is mostly in China's west, from Xi'an and Kunming to Chengdu and Chonqging, although it also has a large presence along China's eastern seaboard. Sichuan carried just under 20 million passengers in 2014, almost all domestic.International flying, which accounts for 9% of Sichuan's seats in May-2015, is mostly around Northeast and Southeast Asia but limited long-haul links extend to Australia, Moscow and Vancouver.
All of China's Big Three airlines – Air China, China Eastern and China Southern – have a direct or indirect stake in Sichuan Airlines, creating competing interests in China's booming west.
'Luck' may be in its name but Chinese carrier Lucky Air is not leaving its future entirely to fate. The Kunming-based carrier is expected to transition to the low-cost model, following the Chinese government's rapid rise in LCC interest.
With a southwestern base and route network concentrated on secondary cities, fare premiums are hard to attain. Lucky Air hopes to differentiate itself in China's often dated and monotonous airline branding, and so has introduced a new logo, becoming the latest HNA-affiliated airline to re-brand.
Lucky Air is one of two Chinese carriers granted international traffic rights at Kunming and there is the prospect for further international growth, mostly to South and Southeast Asia. If it is to be serious about addressing costs, Lucky Air will need to look at its fleet, a mix of 737s and A320s. Its 26 aircraft fleet could grow to 70 by 2020, including possibly widebody aircraft within three years, the carrier announced at the Routes Asia forum in Kunming.
Kunming in southwest China has been the country's traditional gateway to Southeast Asia, and flights to Southeast Asia account for 60% of Kunming's international seats, making Kunming an exception to most other Chinese airports mostly with larger international exposure to Northeast Asia. Kunming hopes to use its Southeast Asian network to be a transfer hub from North America and Europe, and in 2014 its regional government established a RMB200 million (USD32 million) fund for new international routes.
Such traffic, while plausible in the long-term, will be the icing on the cake. 93% of the airport's seats in Mar-2015 are domestic and Kunming carried 32m passengers in 2014. International will be a small but growing part of Kunming's story, with sixth-freedom Europe/North America-Southeast Asia traffic even smaller. Kunming's geography disadvantages it in having long-haul flights to North America.
While geography is more favourable to Europe, competition from Southeast Asian and Gulf carriers is strong and Kunming will be up against mighty networks. Point-to-point traffic volumes are not large enough to contemplate filler connecting traffic and Kunming cannot rely on connecting traffic the way Dubai can.