Hainan Airlines is re-upping its plans to fly to Tijuana. The Chinese carrier submitted applications to the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) to serve four new long-haul destinations starting later in 2017 and the Mexican city is again on the list, as are Tehran, Zurich and Sydney. All of the routes are interesting for a variety of reasons but the Tijuana route is most intriguing to me, mostly on account of the current bilateral agreement governing flights between the United States and China.
In July 2016 Hainan Airlines sought access to fly to Tijuana with continuing service to Mexico City. This is a similar flight routing to what Aeromexico used to add service to Tokyo a decade ago. The airport in Mexico City sits at elevation that reduces aircraft range capabilities such that a nonstop flights to Shanghai or Beijing would be pushing the limits of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet Hainan uses for long haul service. Tijuana is at sea level and also 1,400 miles closer to Asia, making the stop a smart choice from an operations perspective. It might also be a financially prudent one.
It is unclear if the application this year also includes the tag flight to Mexico City but I’m not entirely sure it matters as that might not really be the target market. San Diego and southern California are right across the border and the new CBX border crossing at the Tijuana airport makes it essentially a dual purpose airport, with US immigration and transit facilities available via a short walkway from the main terminal. When that facility opened a year ago many expected it to contribute to an increase in traffic at Tijuana’s airport; Hainan Airlines showing up could be a prime example of such.
The bilateral aviation agreement between the US and China limits each country to 154 weekly flights from Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Those slots are in high demand (US carriers fight for them each time they become available) and China also generally precludes competitive flights from its carriers on individual routes, further limiting options. US and Chinese authorities are pursuing liberalization of the bilateral air services agreement, at least in theory, but for the past few years little changed and most expect things to remain that way. By choosing Tijuana as a destination Hainan can avoid the limits of the bilateral agreement while getting about as close as possible to the United States without actually landing in it.
Hainan Airlines also intends to provide service between Chongqing (CKG) and Los Angeles and New York’s JFK airports, an application already approved by the CAAC and awaiting approval from US regulators, a process that faces no obvious road blocks under the current bilateral treaty, though American Airlines did call attention to the difficulty US carriers face in acquiring slots at Shanghai and Beijing in its response to the filling.
It should also be noted that Chinese airlines have a habit of announcing route plans and destinations and not ultimately operating them, even if approved by various authorities. Service between Mexico City and Beijing was expected to start in January 2017, for example, and that never came to fruition.
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