Air China to open nonstop flight to Houston

Updated: 2013-01-18 12:44

By Wang Jun in Houston (China Daily)

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Air China to open nonstop flight to Houston

From left: Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, Chinese Consul General to Houston Xu Erwen, Director of Aviation for the Houston Airport System Mario Diaz, and Vice-President of Air China and General Manager of Air China North America Chi Zhihang, pose for a photo at the announcement to launch the Beijing-Houston nonstop flight on Jan 15. Wang Jun / China Daily

Houston holds a special place in the history of diplomacy between the United States and China: Many in China remember a photo of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping wearing a cowboy hat in the Texan city during his American visit weeks after the two countries formalized relations in 1979.

That same year, Houston became the first US city outside Washington with which China established a diplomatic mission.

Still, the nation's fourth-biggest city by population hasn't had the stature of New York City or Los Angeles when it comes to air travel to and from China. So Mayor Annise Parker was happy to announce this week the start of direct flights between her city and Beijing on flag carrier Air China.

"This is a gift which we truly appreciate," Parker told Chi Zhihang, Air China vice-president and general manager for North America, at a news conference announcing the service launch.The Houston-Beijing route is expected to open on July 11 with four flights a week.

"Our ties with China and Asia are growing stronger every day," said Parker, who visited China twice in recent years to help prepare for the new air service.

Air China to open nonstop flight to Houston

Houston-Beijing is the first new direct service for Air China in the US in 32 years. The airline currently offers nonstop flights between Beijing and four North American cities: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver.

"With its vibrant business community and fast-growing Asian community, Houston is a perfect choice for an additional gateway for Air China," Chi said. "It offers the most convenient connections to China and beyond for our passengers from Texas and neighboring states."

The flights take on added significance considering Houston's role in the history of US-Chinese relations.

"The photo in which Deng Xiaoping wore a cowboy hat in a rodeo show has sent a clear and strong message to the whole world that China can be and will be a friend," said China's consul general in Houston, Xu Erwen,

Houston in 1979 was chosen as the site of China's first consulate in the US beyond the Chinese Embassy in Washington. As bilateral ties have strengthened, so have the city's links to China. Trade between Houston and China totaled $11.9 billion in 2011, and over 500 Houston-based companies have set up operations in China.

Also, a number of Chinese companies have come to Houston to invest and do business, creating jobs. Chinese basketball star Yao Ming played for the NBA's Houston Rockets and continues to promote the city, Xu noted proudly.

"I was shocked to find out there is no nonstop flight between Houston and China when I came here to work three years ago," Xu said. "This is the only city that holds a Chinese consulate that doesn't have a nonstop flight connecting the city and China. Since then, pushing for a direct flight became an aspiration for many like-minded people. I'm so proud to be the first consul general in Houston to see the dream of many finally come true," she said.

"When Air China arrives, Houston will provide the sole nonstop service to China across the southern and central regions of the United States. That geographic area makes up half of the United States - that's how important this is," said Mario Diaz, aviation director for the Houston Airport System, which operates George Bush Intercontinental Airport (named after the 41st US president, who served from 1989 to 1993).

Diaz said Air China's move will enhance Houston's position in the global economy as well as visitors' experience in the city.

In addition to Houston, Air China will beef up operations at its four other North American gateways. On March 31, the airline's New York-Beijing service will increase to 11 flights a week while upgrading aircraft used on the to the Boeing777-300ER. The Los Angeles-Beijing route will resume its schedule of two daily flights that same date. Vancouver-Beijing service will increase to 11 weekly flights on May 17, and bigger Boeing747-400 aircraft will be used for San Francisco-Beijing daily flights starting March 31.

Air China isn't alone in capitalizing on increased demand for air travel between the US and China. In 2012, there were 31,748 flights connecting the US to the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong, according to the trade group Airlines for America, formerly the Airport Transport Association of America, (There currently is no direct service between the US and Macau.)

In the recent years, China's three biggest airlines - Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airline - have bought about 300 new planes, at a cost of $40 billion.

To finance their purchases, the Chinese carriers tapped international capital markets. In December, East West Bank, a California-based bank that focuses on the US and China, financed a $90 million loan to the Export-Import Bank of China.

"The $90 million loan facility is part of China Eximbank's $1.39 billion transportation external debt program for aircraft importation," said Emily Wang, East West Bank's marketing director. US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, whose congressional district includes parts of Houston and who is the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security and infrastructure protection, said at the news conference that Air China's new service will deepen US-China relations.

"The friendship between China and the United States truly exhibits that where there's a will, there's always a way," the congresswoman said.