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Beijing 2008:  Travelers Face Limited Airline Options

By CNBC.com
Monday, 19 May 2008 | 9:16 AM ET

U.S. Olympic fans looking to fly to Beijing for the summer games will find a limited number of direct flights originating from the US, but at least they’ll have a brand spanking new airport terminal to receive them.

Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3, designed by British architect Norman Foster, was built partly to serve visitors of the Olympic games and should “make a significant difference to travelers,” says Webster O’Brien, a vice president with airline consultant SH&E.

The $2.8 billion facility opened in late February with little fanfare but also without the glitches that plagued the new $8.7 billion terminal at Heathrow in London.

The terminal has a state-of-the-art baggage system designed by the Chinese subsidiary of Germany’s Siemens, a 10-mile direct light rail link to the city and a runway capable of handling Airbus' A380 super-jumbo jetliner.

American travelers booking now have a choice of five U.S. carriers with service to Beijing and Shanghai originating from seven American cities -- Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Newark, San Francisco and Washington. U.S. airlines are also allowed to fly into Guangzhou, about 100 miles from Hong Kong, which hosts the equestrian events.

Limited Options

Continental Airlines, Delta and American Airlines each have one daily direct flight from Newark, Atlanta, and Chicago, respectively. Northwest has three daily flights to three different cities in China, but all are routed through Tokyo.

UAL'sUnited Airlines, which is the official airlines of the US Olymmpic team, has five daily flights, including thefirst direct service between the US and Chinese capitals.

Those started just last spring - more than 30 years after President Richard Nixon normalized relations with Mao Zedong’s ‘Red China’. Beijing previously established direct flights with 27 other capitals.

There are also seven daily flights between the two countries on Chinese carriers - Air China, China Easter, China Southern and Hainan Air.

Several non-U.S. airlines also provide service from North America to the Chinese cities. For those of on the West Coast, Air Canadaflies direct from Vancouver to Beijing. Cathay Pacific flies from Los Angeles to Beijing via Hong Kong. Air Korea, ANA, Asiana, and JAL also fly from U.S. airports to one the cities, though most of the flights stop their home base hubs, from where travelers can get connecting flights to China.

Airplane Takeoff
Airplane Takeoff

For those looking – or willing -- to stop in Europe on the way, British Airways, Air France-KLM, China Southern, Austrian Airlines and Aeroflot all fly to Beijing via London's Heathrow Airport, which a number of U.S. airlines serve.

A recent survey of flights on FlyChina.com from various US. getaways, showed round trip economy prices - which run $1,200-$1,400 on the West Coatst to $1,500 on the East Coast - are disappearing quickly.

Full fare tickets run around $3,000 but if you are flexible on dates, it’s still possible to find tickets for about $2,000, says Larry Ge, sales manager for flychina.com, a Chinese-owned travel agency based in Boca Raton, Florida since 1998.

“We’re just swamped with calls to go to China,” says Blake Fleetwood of Cook American Express, which has five offices in New York area and specializes in business travel to China.

“Capacity is a problem,” adds Fleetwood, who sells 50 to 60 trips to china every day. “We have to put them on a lot of foreign carriers -- Korean Air, China Air."

Round About

More choice is on the way. The U.S. and Chinese governments agreed in May 2007 to and to continue expanding the number of carriers and flights in coming years.

The agreement allows US carriers to add 13 new daily flights over the next five years, more than doubling the exciting total to 23.

Four new daily flights will be added 2009, three more daily flights in 2010, and two new daily flights in 2011 and 2012 for a total of 23 per day.

“[Airlines are] all frustrated because they don’t have enough routes over there," says airline analyst Roger King of CreditSights.

U.S. and European carriers also have direct service to Hong Kong, part of the People's Republic of China since 1997, which is covered by a separate air agreement with the United States.

Enterprising travelers can make connections there, flying on to Beijing via Cathay Pacific, Air China and Dragon Air. (It's 1,231 miles from Hong Kong to Beijing, by the way).

Continental, Northwest, American and United all fly there on their own or via a partner through a code-sharing agreement.

For those looking to handle tickets for the games and airfares all in one, Air China has a package. The airline, an official sponsor of the 2008 Beijing games, is offering Olympics tour packages that include flights from South Korea and tickets for the opening and closing ceremonies. Accommodation, however, is not included.

Travelers are advised to make sure they get their entry visas (remember this is still a country run by a control-obsessed Communist Party) in their home countries, as it may not be possible to pick them up in another city.

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