With 700 aircraft flying 115 million passengers in 2016, China Southern Airlines continues to grow in size and quality. En route to Auckland from London, regular long-haul traveller Simon Walker even looks forward to the stopover in the Chinese city of Guangzhou
There’s an airline name that’s really taken off over the past four years. China Southern has been around for a while – ever since the old Civil Aviation Administration of China was split up in the 1990s. But awareness of its offer and its popularity, particularly among returning Australian and New Zealanders, has grown exponentially in Britain since it launched the Canton Route to the Antipodes.
Let’s start with the basics. China Southern is an exceptionally comfortable airline. The fact that it uses the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the so-called Kangaroo Route does, of course, help. These are spacious, comfortable and above all quiet aircraft – reliable, ecologically friendly and well-suited to long distances.
If you come from New Zealand, you get used to long-distance flights. Over four decades I must have made the return trip to the northern hemisphere at least 50 times. The last three have all been with China Southern via Guangzhou, more formally known as the Canton Route.
For Antipodean travellers journeying wearily from New Zealand and Australian cities to London and back again, China Southern has become a godsend, offering frequency, flexibility and value, as well as exposure to a culture and carrier we may not have known.
Besides the actual aircraft, the crew are friendly, cheerful and obliging. This is a young airline – China Southern became independent 29 years ago, when the old Civil Aviation Administration of China was split up. Its cabin crew are not the jaded veterans of longer established airlines. They make up in warmth what they may lack in experience: what business traveller can object to being served champagne in an outsize glass, or being offered four packs of the glazed walnut snacks you had just praised?
The food is varied and appropriate – Chinese and Western – and the inflight entertainment, relatively limited when I made my first journey three years ago, now offers as much diversity and international flair as any other carrier.
China Southern’s Guangzhou stopover
The convenience of the flight schedule is obvious. You leave London late at night – on the best flat-bed I’ve encountered if you’re flying business – and arrive in Guangzhou late afternoon. A short wait and you’re ready for half a dozen Australasian connections (Adelaide launched just months ago). The Auckland flight will have you in the City of Sails just after 7am next morning, making it one of the easiest Kiwi connections. China Southern’s flexibility allows travellers a stopover, plus the opportunity to connect to night or daytime flights to the Antipodes. As someone who has always preferred flying when it’s light, I appreciate the ability to make three out of the four travel legs during the day.
When in 2013 Qantas somewhat patronisingly declared China Southern was “on its radar”, one commentator quipped that China Southern could well say that Qantas was “in its rear view mirror”. What started in 1935 as a 12-day trip between London and Brisbane can now be managed comfortably in a little over 24 hours, turning China into one of the most important transit countries anywhere.
I always like to break the journey – and the main reason is Guangzhou, the great trading centre once known as Canton. China’s third-biggest city is not as globally known as Shanghai or Beijing, but it has as much to offer in terms of culture, history and cuisine. China’s visa-free admission policy, allowing up to 72 hours in major cities, gives a perfect opportunity to adjust to the time difference (eight hours from the UK, four to five more by the time you reach New Zealand) and stretch one’s mind and legs a little.
Features such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the old Shamian Island colonial settlement and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees are unspoilt tourist attractions. Anyone with vertigo will find the top of the 2,000-foot Canton Tower – for a period the tallest building on earth – terrifying, but it does provide a remarkable view over the Pearl River Delta, now the world’s largest megacity.
It isn’t just weary Antipodean travellers who have cottoned on to the frequency, flexibility and value of this Asian carrier. Guangzhou is China Southern’s home and hub, so onward flights can also take you to most destinations in Asia and many in Africa. As members of SkyTeam, which includes Air France and KLM, China’s four main airlines give access to over a thousand destinations across 177 countries.
For China Southern, with over 700 planes carrying 115 million passengers in 2016, and new routes now including Toronto and Mexico, it is little wonder that international passenger volumes grew almost 18 per cent last year. That makes this airline the largest carrier in Asia, and the fourth biggest in the world.
China Southern has taken a particular interest in China’s ‘one belt, one road’ strategy, the modern equivalent of the ancient Silk Route, linking China with central Asia, Europe and the UK. China Southern itself operates 157 flights from 64 cities in 36 countries along that route.
With Skytrax airline review rating it No 1 in China and among the top 15 carriers internationally, I’m predicting that 2017 – the year of the fire rooster – will give China Southern even more to crow about as its Canton Route increasingly attracts business passengers as well as leisure travellers.