Air China eager to use the 787 in new US markets

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Air China is examining a raft of new US destinations as it waits for the first of its 15 Boeing 787-9s to arrive in three to four years.

Currently Air China offers non-stop flights from Beijing to four North American gateways - Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York JFK and Vancouver. But new cities under evaluation include Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami and Boston, Air China VP for North America Zhihang Chi tells ATI at the Network USA conference in Austin, Texas.

Chi says he really wants to look at Chicago O'Hare since that is the biggest hub of Air China's fellow Star Alliance partner United. He add as United and Continental continue their integration, Continental's Houston hub also becomes attractive.

While Air China could serve some of those markets with Boeing 777-300ERs scheduled for delivery starting this year and continuing through 2015, Chi says the 777 is a larger aircraft, and presents a bigger risk than operating those markets with the 787.

Chi also jokes that whenever he gets frustrated with management at Los Angeles International airport he says Air China could use the 787 to overfly Los Angeles direct to Las Vegas. "Hopefully one day we'll get the Dreamliner," Chi quips.

Originally Air China was supposed to take delivery of its first 787 in 2008, and has since switched its 15-aircraft order from the -8 version to -9. Chi cites the "open secret" that the original -8 "did not even come close" to its technical specifications, which rendered the aircraft as "not very attractive".

He also explains switching to the 787-9 was painful, as it delays initial deliveries by another two to three years. Air China now expects to take delivery of it first 787 in about three to four years.

In the meantime Chi says his immediate focus is convincing Air China's management to replace the Boeing 747s operated on its current North American routes with 777-300ERs. Air China has a total of 19 of the type on order, according to the Flightglobal ACAS database, and expects to take first delivery in July.

Chi states he is not privy to any discussions regarding the Airbus A380, "but if I were to take a guess", he thinks Air China would be more inclined to opt for the 747-8. "My personal feeling is the A380 is a bit too big," he explains.

However, he says, "never say never," with respect to the A380, noting if the USA loosens Visa waiver requirements for Chinese travellers, Air China could possibly use the A380 on some of its US routes.