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China's airlines scramble to improve

China open for business -- but do airlines make the grade?

By Peter Walker for CNN

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China's airlines are expanding massively.

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(CNN) -- More and more foreign executives are flocking to China every year as the country opens up for business. But those arriving on Chinese airlines can sometimes be in for a nasty surprise.

Travelers and industry experts alike agree that China's three main state-owned airlines, while improving fast, still suffer from sometimes elderly fleets and a hit-and-miss approach to service, food and the like.

One leading Internet forum for air passengers, run by British research firm Skytrax, carries numerous tales of woe.

National airline Air China is "the single worst major carrier on which I have flown", one U.S. passenger fumed after a business class flight from Los Angeles to Beijing marred by a malfunctioning entertainment system, indifferent food, broken toilets and flight attendants who spoke minimal English.

Executives were little more complimentary about the other two main Chinese airlines serving foreign cities, Shanghai-based China Eastern and China Southern, which operates from the city of Guangzhou, near Hong Kong.

"This airline may be cheap, but it will cause you total misery. Food is terrible, there is zero in-flight entertainment, seats are cramped -- and on two occasions broken," one user complained of China Eastern.

However, other passengers are far more complimentary. A key factor appears to be the age of the aircraft.

China's aviation market is growing at astonishing speed, with passenger numbers increasing by around 15 percent a year. Airlines are struggling to update their fleets to keep up -- they currently have a total of just over 850 planes, but expect to need double that in just five years' time.

New deals are being signed virtually every month, for example an order worth around 10 billion dollars placed in December by six Chinese carriers with European aviation giant Airbus.

At the same time, China's airports -- long criticized for crumbling buildings, long queues and stifling bureaucracy -- are being revamped, notably the vast, brand-new facility in Beijing springing up at breakneck speed ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

At the end of February, the Civil Aviation Administration of China announced it would spend more than 17 billion dollars over the next five years on airport infrastructure.

According to Peter Miller of Skytrax, which ranks airlines according to exhaustive surveys -- its 2005 Airline of the Year award was based on more than 12 million nominations -- the main Chinese carriers are still seen in the industry as "lagging behind."

'Cheap and cheerful'

"There is a lot of money being invested in new planes, and in new airport infrastructure, but it will be a long process," he said. "They are still some way behind many other airlines, particularly other Asian carriers like Singapore and Cathay Pacific."

One of the factors affecting foreign executives is that Chinese airlines can reliably fill their business class cabins with government officials paying full fares, Miller notes.

"Unusually for the airline world, they openly admit that they are not really that interested in foreign business. Their internal market is so huge that it dominates everything," he said.

One advantage for the budget-conscious executive is that seats on Chinese airlines tend to be considerably less pricey than elsewhere, meaning passengers should perhaps be prepared for an experience one traveler dubbed "cheap and cheerful."

"The business class fare can be a quarter of what you would pay on other airlines, and the service reflects that," Miller said.

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