Can the Triangle support a nonstop flight to China? RDU thinks so.

Hainan Airlines is one of six Chinese carriers that fly nonstop between the U.S. and China. One analyst thinks it may be the most likely to consider establishing a flight from Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Hainan Airlines is one of six Chinese carriers that fly nonstop between the U.S. and China. One analyst thinks it may be the most likely to consider establishing a flight from Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Just six years ago, Raleigh-Durham International Airport was still worried about maintaining regular nonstop flights to the West Coast.

Now RDU has set it sights a little farther. Airport officials say they think the growing business, educational and cultural connections between the Triangle and China will entice an airline to establish a more than 7,000-mile nonstop flight over the Arctic from North Carolina to the other side of the world.

As a sign of its ambitions, RDU is hosting a symposium for business, university and government leaders on Tuesday aimed at building support for winning a nonstop flight from the Triangle to China.

“RDU already has a strong traveler base to China, and our region has a solid Chinese business base,” said RDU spokeswoman Kristie VanAuken. “We can build on that synergy.”

The invitation-only symposium, at Duke University, will bring together about 100 state and local leaders, including Duke President Vincent Price, state Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon and state Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland. They’ll talk not only about the benefits of a nonstop flight, but also the obstacles to getting one and what the airport and leaders in the region can do to overcome them.

“An effort like this can take three to seven years,” VanAuken said. “And RDU cannot do it alone.”

Among the possible topics will be ways the Triangle could better accommodate Chinese visitors, both at the airport and in the community. In his weekly newspaper column, N.C. State University economist Mike Walden noted that a nonstop flight would make it easier for the growing number of Chinese tourists to get to the Triangle, but getting them to the beaches, mountains, golf courses and destinations in the state may take more planning.

“Chinese tourists are said to prefer vacation sites with clean air and safe conditions,” Walden wrote. “North Carolina certainly has these.”

China is one of several places the Triangle business community would like to be able to reach with a nonstop flight, said Joe Milazzo, executive director of the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group associated with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. Among the others is San Jose in Silicon Valley.

The likely customers for a nonstop flight to China include Lenovo, with dual headquarters in Morrisville and Beijing; Duke, with a campus outside Shanghai; and a growing number of businesses with Chinese ties, including Smithfield Foods, now a subsidiary of WH Group of China. Milazzo said RDU is constantly looking for opportunities to establish new air service, and airport officials have said there’s already healthy demand for travel between the Triangle and China. (RDU officials declined to provide numbers, saying they planned to make them part of their presentation on Tuesday.)

“They see this within the realm of possibility. Definitely not a slam dunk, but certainly not impossible either,” Milazzo said. “And the last time they told us they could get a new international flight, it worked out great,” referring to the daily Delta flight to Paris that began in 2016.

As for RDU, its biggest investment in a possible flight to China will be construction of a new, longer runway. The airport’s longest runway, at 10,000 feet, is nearing the end of its useful life, and RDU has begun planning to build a parallel replacement. The new runway would be 11,500 feet long to ensure the large, fuel-laden Asia-bound jets can safely take off in all kinds of weather.

“This is a 10-year plan and nearly a half a billion dollars investment in the aviation future for the Triangle,” RDU President Michael Landguth said. “Bar none, this is our most important project for 2018 and the next few years, and bar none, I believe, the most important two miles of pavement we have in this region.”

‘It’s a natural’

You can now catch a nonstop flight to China from 13 airports in the continental United States, most of them large metropolises or hubs for major airlines or both. They include Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

But in recent years, Chinese carriers have begun to fly to a couple of smaller U.S. cities with strong business and educational communities: Boston and San Jose. RDU’s VanAuken cites San Jose, a slightly smaller airport by passenger traffic, as the airport most like RDU with a nonstop to China.

While perhaps not as tech-rich as Silicon Valley, the Triangle seems like a natural for nonstop air service to China, says Robert Mann of the airport consulting firm R.W. Mann and Co. in Port Washington, N.Y.

Mann says that because RDU is not a hub for any airline, it will probably have to be a Chinese carrier flying from a hub in Asia that can make the economics work. Six Chinese airlines now have nonstop flights to the continental U.S. (compared to three U.S. carriers with nonstops to China), and Mann notes that Hainan Airlines with a hub in Beijing is the one that has established flights to tech-heavy markets such as Boston, San Jose and Seattle.

“Unless you have significant connecting activity at a large hub, it’s very difficult to make a long-haul flight like that work,” he said. “Logically it’s going to be a Chinese carrier, because they’re the only ones that have sufficient connections on their end of the route.”

Other challenges

Persuading an airline that an RDU-China flight would be profitable isn’t the only hurdle for the Triangle. Because the two countries don’t have an “open skies” agreement, each new flight must be approved by the national governments.

“There are bi-lateral agreements that are negotiated at the federal level,” VanAuken said. “We will seek the support of our North Carolina delegation to support this effort.”

Then there is finding arrival and departure slots at airports at both ends that don’t discourage travelers from making the 14- or 15-hour flight. Large Chinese hubs such as Beijing are notoriously congested, and American carriers have been discouraged by time slots that have their passengers arriving or leaving in the wee hours of the morning, Mann said. American Airlines, for one, had to work to get decent time slots for its flights.

“Only through protracted negotiation and complaining and working with their partner, China Southern Airways, were they able to trade and get to a set of slots that made sense on both sides,” Mann said.

The challenges of making a China flight work can confound expectations. Delta Airlines twice established nonstop flights between Shanghai and its home airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world in terms of passengers. Both times, Delta discontinued the route, in 2009 and 2012, after about a year, citing weak demand.

This summer, Delta will try again, offering daily nonstops between Atlanta and Shanghai starting in July, in conjunction with a Chinese partner, China Eastern Airlines.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

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