Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: "Airlines Do Good"

Being a high-profile industry means the airline sector frequently finds itself in a harsh spotlight. With more Chinese flying than ever before, domestic carriers have borne the brunt of criticisms and ridicules in this country. This column has in the past examined the public outcry over poor customer service and unauthorized labor actions of mainland airlines.

All the problems aside, however, Chinese airlines have recently been deserving of better press. After the earthquake that hit Sichuan province in May, state ownership of major domestic carriers became an instant advantage, as the government was able to mobilize planes and personnel to join the rescue and recovery efforts within hours.

The airlines rose to the challenge. Flag carrier Air China (CA), whose Chengdu hub is less than 100 kilometers away from the epicenter, deployed dozens of planes to fly in rescuers and aid. After removing rows of seats on a Boeing 757 to fit in 36 stretchers, CA evacuated seriously injured patients from the quake zone to other provinces.

CA also proactively canceled some flights to and from Chengdu, and upgraded aircraft types for the remaining, making way for relief flights. The airline not only regularly updated its website on the status of affected flights but also announced a rare fee waiver for ticket-holders to and from the region, allowing them to cancel or change trips without penalty.

While the responses by CA and other Chinese carriers undoubtedly helped to generate good publicity for the companies, the speed and scope of the industry’s reaction made for an admirable display of its competency and conscience.

Even overseas carriers have joined the cause. Chicago-based United Airlines (UA), the world’s largest trans-Pacific carrier with five nonstop daily flights to mainland China, asked its customers to donate to the China Earthquake Relief Fund established by American Red Cross. As an incentive, UA set aside five million miles to award a one-time bonus of 500 miles for those who had donated USD 50 or more. The carrier reached its maximum contribution within one day!

Finally an unrelated note for aviation enthusiasts: You will have a chance to fly – or at least spot – the world’s largest commercial airliner right here at the Capital Airport ahead of the Olympics. Singapore Airlines will operate the Airbus 380 on the Beijing route August 2-8 – but only on one of its multiple daily flights from the Lion City. The Superjumbo in full view – how exciting! Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 42 of the July 2008 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

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