"We talk about the Far East - it's not the Far East any more - it has come very close to us." This was Lufthansa chief executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber addressing assorted local dignitaries, ex-pat customers and European journalists in Beijing (seen below), during a three-day tour to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the German carrier's first flight to China, and its involvement in the country ever since, writes Helen Massy-Beresford, business reporter of Flight International, the sister title to Airline Business.
Back in 1926 the trip from Germany to China took 10 days. Now it takes more like 10 hours, and Lufthansa operates 52 flights a week between Germany and China, and has 8,000 of its 92,000 employees based there.
Mayrhuber himself has been to China six times already this year, a statistic that serves to underline how important the carrier's engagement with this market is to its strategy.
As its economy booms, China has become a byword for future sales potential in aerospace, providing a significant proportion of the expected growth in passenger numbers, and Western airlines are increasingly committing to the market, not just by flying there, but by creating their own footprints in the region.
Lufthansa is at the forefront of this journey east - the trip began with a ceremony to lay the foundation stone for the Lufthansa/Air China joint venture Ameco's Airbus A380 maintenance hangar at Beijing airport. Mayrhuber says Lufthansa's "stronghold" is Europe, but China is clearly an extremely significant market too.
Its investment in China over the last 80 years began early on with joint venture, Eurasia and today includes its Ameco maintenance and training joint venture with Air China and its investment in Jade Cargo International, a new cargo carrier.
Amid the flurry of positive comments about the Chinese market during the visit, however, Mayrhuber kept coming back to one sticking point for the airline's future development, taking the chance to call for a resolution to the issue of US-Europe Open Skies, as he wondered aloud how there could even still be debate over Open Skies when Lufthansa was able to form a joint venture in China all those years ago.
But the overall theme of the visit was of celebration of the airline's ongoing success in the Chinese market, in which Mayrhuber insists it is important for the airline to be a "corporate citizen". As well as helping to lay the a foundation stone for the A380 hangar, Mayrhuber presided over the opening of a Lufthansa gallery at the Imperial Art Museum, with a selection of photographs documenting the last 80 years of the carrier.
"In 15 years there will be more than 4 billion people flying - this is not a dream, this is reality," said Mayrhuber during the trip, and there's no doubt that China will make a significant contribution to this growth as its economy booms. Lufthansa is taking advantage of this growth already, but it remains to be seen whether other European carriers will follow suit to the same degree.