Sichuan Airlines' flight attendents welcome passengers on board. Provided to China Daily
Airline found a lucrative gateway into Europe - with the help of some delicious cuisine from Sichuan
Kong pao chicken, fish-flavored shredded pork and black pepper grilled beef, mixed with spicy chili sauce - these signature Sichuan dishes are culinary highlights that make the nine-hour flight from Prague to Chengdu enjoyable and fun.
"We are glad to offer European tourists a taste of the flavors of Chengdu before they even physically land in Chengdu," says You Yong, general manager of Sichuan Airlines' Czech Republic office.
He is not just using the word "taste" in a literal sense. Ever since Sichuan Airlines launched the Prague-Chengdu direct flight in 2016, it has worked hard with the Sichuan Provincial Tourism Agency to host cultural events in Prague with the hope of attracting more Czech visitors to China. Last year it helped to host a Sichuan experience day in the Old Town Square of Prague, which included a parade with performers in giant panda costumes. Children were invited to color porcelain panda toys, and a team of Sichuan chefs cooked regional specialties on pop-up stalls across the square.
"That was a day of joy in the memory of many local Czech residents. Many nearby residents found out about it because the food smelled so good," You says.
The twice-a-week route now has an occupancy rate of 70 or 80 percent, and You's team is considering adding another weekly flight.
At first, flight occupancy was not impressive and Western traveler numbers were low. Huge pressure was on You's team to justify Sichuan Airlines' decision to run the route, which was the first that the Chinese airline had launched in a country that is part of the Schengen borderless region.
What turned the game was a new strategy You's team developed, focusing on attracting large tour groups from China by offering package deals to Chinese tourism agencies. Its competitively priced tickets allowed Chinese travel agencies to lower the cost of whole tour packages to customers, who would fly into Prague and tour the city before embarking on a tour of other Schengen countries, finally returning to Prague to end their Europe trip.
In 2016, it started working with several Sichuan tour agencies, and in 2017 it landed a flagship contract with Huayuan International Travel, one of China's biggest tour agencies.
Such packages contributed to a surge of Chinese visitors to the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, Sichuan Airlines' promotional activities to help raise awareness of Chengdu in the minds of Czech residents also helped to increase the airline's Czech customers.
For the past two years, Sichuan Airlines collaborated with the Chinese embassy in the Czech Republic to invite a group of around a dozen Czech Republic members of Parliament to visit Sichuan. During these trips, the MPs visit not just the modern city of Chengdu to experience famous local snacks and tea, but also venture into rural Sichuan locations, such as Ngawa Town, well known for its rolling hills, sprawling plains and clear blue sky.
Sichuan Airlines was founded in 1986 by the Sichuan provincial government. Back then, China's air travel market was a completely different world, says You. China was liberalizing its economy, and air travelers still needed to obtain an official company sign-off in order to purchase a ticket.
"During this period of transitioning, our key management team exercised tremendous foresight to run Sichuan Airlines with market efficiency," says You.
In setting up the company, the Sichuan provincial government invited three of China's biggest airlines - China Southern, China Eastern and Shandong Airlines - to join as shareholders.
This brave move to invite its competitors on board paid off, as Sichuan Airlines quickly learned from the domestic incumbent airlines lessons in operations management, marketing, catering and staff training.
It also invited Chengdu Gingko Restaurant to join as a small shareholder. This historical setup still plays an important role in the airline's popular onboard meals.
The airline rapidly grew, especially after 2000, when China launched the go-west campaign to boost economic development of western provincial-level regions, including Sichuan. This policy was aimed to help western Chinese regions catch up with more economically developed eastern cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province, where Sichuan Airlines has its hub, became a key beneficiary of these developments. Today, more than half of the Fortune Global 500 companies have established branches in Chengdu, a testimony to the city's economic strength.
According to 2017 statistics, Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport's passenger numbers reached 49.8 million, making it China's fourth-busiest airport, and first in central and western China.
Riding on the wave of Chengdu's economic development, Sichuan Airlines' strategic emphasis on safety and service allowed the airline to withstand strong domestic competition, says Zhang Wei, the airline's director of services and marketing.
"Our heavy investment in the highest safety measures is partly due to our location," Zhang says. Sichuan Airlines operates a clustered network of routes across central and western China, including many remote and mountainous regions.
"Many airports in mountainous regions have far stricter safety requirements for airlines' technology and pilots' skills. Our strategic investment in properly serving these airports helped us to build up safety expertise," says Zhang.
One such example is Lhasa Kongga International Airport, the airport serving Lhasa, the capital city of the Tibet autonomous region, a mountainous area known for its harsh and rugged terrain. Located 3,600 meters above sea level, Lhasa Kongga International Airport is one of the highest airports in the world.
In 2017, Sichuan Airlines was ranked the world's 22nd safest airline by the Germany-based Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre. According to this ranking, it is the fourth-safest Chinese airline, after Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, Taiwan's EVA Air and Haikou-based Hainan Airlines.
Sichuan Airlines' emphasis on service, meanwhile, derives from the fact that a higher proportion of visitors to Sichuan travel for tourism purposes, compared with bigger business hubs such as Beijing and Shanghai. For tourists, experience is the key, and this emphasis on service across the Sichuan region greatly affected on Sichuan Airlines' corporate culture.
As Sichuan's travel links with overseas destinations increased, Sichuan Airlines also increasingly developed international flights. Its first route was launched between Chengdu and Melbourne, Australia, in 2012. Today, more than 40 of the airline's 270 flight routes are international.
"Operating international flights was a steep learning curve," says Zhang. Behind this seemingly easy step was a whole series of actions, including purchasing planes that could accommodate long-haul flights, gaining an understanding of International Civil Aviation Organization standards and building a professional human resources team capable of serving internationally traveling customers.
In the Schengen region, Sichuan Airlines picked Prague as its first destination due to the growing popularity of the Czech Republic for Chinese visitors, says Zhang.
This surge in visitor numbers happened mostly after the Czech Republic joined Schengen in 2007, which conveniently allowed Chinese visitors to include it in their package tours across multiple European cities.
Prague's profile in Chinese tourists' minds received another boost when it was featured in the popular 2015 Chinese romance drama Somewhere Only We Know. In more recent years, initiatives such as the launch of Chinese payment platforms Alipay and UnionPay in many Prague luxury shops have helped to attract Chinese shoppers.
In 2016, the number of Chinese tourists visiting the Czech Republic reached nearly 300,000, a big increase, considering that before 2007 the total was so small that no recorded figures existed.
Looking to the future, Zhang says plans are in the pipeline to launch more Europe flights this year, to locations including Zurich and Copenhagen. "In particular, as 2018 is China-EU Tourism Year, we want to make the most of growing traveler numbers to continue adding more European flights, and continue our journey of international expansion."