Do Flights Get Emptier Than This?

As of this Thursday, Hainan Airlines will begin 3x weekly flights between Los Angeles and Changsha, China. Hainan Airlines is the Beijing-based Skytrax 5-star airline, though I think Skytrax may have been a bit generous with that assessment.

Hainan-787
Hainan Airlines 787

Hainan had some amazing introductory fares on the route, of just $560 roundtrip in economy class, or ~$1,350 roundtrip in business class. That was enough for me to jump on the fare, as I’ve always wanted to review Hainan Airlines… and I’ll be picking up a good number of Alaska Mileage Plan miles in the process.

Hainan-1
Hainan Airlines 787 business class

So I think the question 90% of people had with this route announcement was “what is Changsha?” and “of all places in China, why would they fly there?”

Well, China has quite a few state run airlines, and they have a policy where each longhaul international route can only be operated by a single airline. Air China flies from Los Angeles to Beijing, China Southern flies from Los Angeles to Guangzhou, and China Eastern flies from Los Angeles to Shanghai, Nanjing, and Chengdu. Hainan wanted to fly to Los Angeles, so that left Changsha, apparently.

I’m not sure where exactly the demand for that flight is coming from, though it seems like Changsha is a market which is expecting a lot of growth in the future, and Hainan is trying to get in on the route before a competitor does. If Starwood’s presence in Changsha is any indicator, they presently have a single property, with eight more under construction. At the same time, with China you never know whether an increase in demand is “real” or “artificial.”

Which brings me to Hainan’s flight. Where is the demand for this Los Angeles to Changsha flight coming from? It seems I’m not the only one to wonder. While seatmaps are never a perfectly accurate indicator of how full a flight is, the seatmaps for my upcoming flights have to be the emptiest I’ve ever seen on an international flight. I’m flying in the next couple of weeks, and here’s the seatmap for my outbound flight, via ExpertFlyer:

LAX-CSX-1

LAX-CSX-2

That’s right, there are three assigned seats in business class, and six assigned seats in economy.

Here’s the seatmap for the return flight:

LAX-CSX-3

LAX-CSX-4

This one has a much more impressive load, as more than three times as many seats are occupied on the seatmap. 😉 Unfortunately for Hainan, that still only translates to five seats assigned in business class, and 20 seats assigned in economy.

Like I said, seatmaps aren’t a 100% accurate indicator of availability, though Hainan does let both business & economy passengers assign seats in advance. So I suspect the above represents a vast majority of booked passengers.

I’ve been on a lot of fairly empty international flights in my life (and have many times had the entire first class cabin to myself), but something tells me the outbound flight will be the emptiest ever, possibly with more crew than passengers.

Anyone else book this Los Angeles to Changsha flight, and find their flight this empty as well?

Comments

  1. They could have sold a lot of seats in consolidated blocks to tour companies, which likely wouldn’t assign seats until day of departure. Also Asian passengers tend not to choose seats until day of departure.

  2. Lucky, I would rather take Norwegian Air Shuttle LAX to Copenhagen direct for just about the same price for Econ and Business.

  3. I do agree that most Asian passengers tend not to choose seats until day of departure. A lot of the tour groups(most of tourists coming from China to the US are in tour groups) also do not select seats for passengers until the day of. But we shall see.

  4. We’re not flying this until late March and look forward with anticipation (mixed with a little dread) to your review.

  5. I would consider seat maps to be an even less accurate representation in this case than in many other cases. Presumably a fair number of Hainan customers are buying through travel agencies or other indirect means and wouldn’t necessarily be accustomed to choosing seats in advance of the flight.

  6. What do you expect for a terrible airline flying to an unpopular place.

    I’m surprised there are even 4 seats taken.

  7. I was rerouted by American due to a cancelled connection and was a bit disappointed because my SWU had cleared. The easiest fix would have been Hainan from SEA to PEK, but there was not a single economy seat left on the Saturday morning flight. Delta also had a nonstop, but AA can’t rebook on them since there agreement was canceled. Instead, I was routed through Vancouver and took Air Canada across.

  8. Lucky, there is one thing you would need to understand about operating international flights in China, besides flight depart from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, everywhere else, local government is paying big sum of money begging airlines to start routes from their cities. The assumption is, nonstop airlines will bring foreign visitors, foreign visitors will bring money, and they will invest there, which is good for local economy. I don’t know if such theory holds true, but airlines are happy to use government’s money to cover their loss for operating unprofitable routes.

  9. @Simonsays NAX does not have a business class. As the LCC they are, they only have economy and premium economy on their B787s.

  10. Why Changsha? Because it is the provincial capital of Hunan and a rapidly growing city, which is fast becoming as important in the internal economic, cultural and political life of PRC as other more publicized cities. Hunan hot ‘n spicy cuisine is, of course, known worldwide. This new Hainan Airlines route will not be as important to westerners/Americans as it is likely to be to local business people or to the large Chinese expat population that lives on the west coast….

    As part of my 2013 Year-end Asian Escapade(TM), I did spend 3 days in Changsha (CSX), getting there from Shanghai through Chengdu on air China, before continuing on to Hong Kong on Dragon Air. I stayed at Sheraton Changsha, which is a decent enough SPG hotel. The city has a vibrant nightlife, which is really all I got out of it 😉

  11. As others have noted, many flights within China have seat maps that look like this before boarding but end up going out mostly/completely full. While loads could be light, I expect most tickets on this route to be sold through tour operators or consolidators, as the demand has to be almost all Changsha point of origin, and most Chinese do not book flights overseas except as part of a tour.

    Moreover, I doubt you can assign yourself a seat on Hainan’s website (you definitely can’t on Air China’s website) and most Chinese people don’t check in online. So even if you bought a revenue ticket, you’d have to call Hainan to get a seat anyway.

  12. With prices so low, We should all book and fly together. Party plane China style. Reply with a yes to this comment, yo.

  13. Also, in regards to wondering why Hainan started this flight, you have to remember that Hainan Airlines is part of a conglomerate that is also one of China’s largest tour group operators. So perhaps HNA holdings (owner of Hainan) think that they can sell a lot of tour packages in Changsha to Chinese customers.

    For the record, Changsha’s metro population is about 7.5 million people (larger than Denmark) and GDP is somewhere around that of the country of Morocco, which supports plenty of long-haul flights.

  14. Yes,any unofficial or invalid sources of reference can be considered inaccurate,as many others have mentioned the practical reason,or as a asian 2 class cabin travel evaluator,Changsha is actually the second largest central hub in china (as 2 biggest inland airport),and its media entertainment industry has been leading 1.3 billion Chinese and 100 million abroad Chinese (han),which leads to huge amounts of international entertainment industry human migration,globally,not to mention 50% of the population in LA are asian,and there’s still strong growing demand of central asian non-stop route to both support Hainan’s route development and hope you can wait to see more than 80 airports or under construction for expansion,with you as such highly recognised voice of the area or field of industry shouldn’t make any kind of assumption based on data without any point of evaluating and analysing.

  15. Ah yes, drawing a massive, overarching conclusion about demand from an airplane seat map on a newly launched rohte.

    You realize if Changsha was a US city, it would be the most populous city in the country? More people than NY and your “hometown” of LA. It’s irrelevant that you hadn’t heard of it before the flight launched.

    Totally bizarre post. Could just read “seat maps more wide open than ive ever seen for flight”.

  16. @ Lucky – to put the issue to bed about seat map vs. sold tickets, can you contact your industry sources to figure out how many seats are available (or had been sold)?

  17. Airlines allow in-advance seat assignment + many seats are not assigned = low load factor?

    Appears to me you need some serious work on logic…

  18. I am slightly in agreement with Bob (in a more friendly manner) in that Changsa has 7M people (and growing) so I’m wondering why Lucky feels this is a stretch…two massive markets connected seems like a no brainer. Just because it’s not sexy does not mean it’s not viable given that somebody has to do the plumbing of less sexy but important markets. Certainly makes MUCH more sense to me than the now scratched Dubai to Panama City that Emirates was planning. Further, in a 787 on the route, this is perfectly viable as is shown with SAN-NRT.

    As far as seat maps…that is hardly an indicator for Chinese airlines. My experience as well is that flights are not full all the time on the outbound from the U.S. but very full on the return.

  19. I am flying the route in a couple of weeks and my outbound has 3 in business and my return to lax on the 1st has just me per the seatmap. Choosing a seat was easy online, so the question will be bow accurate is it! My review and thoughts will be posted on Upgrd.com

  20. @Rocky, please post a comment here when your review is posted — I’m eager to read it (and Lucky’s) since I’m taking this trip as an exotic mileage run. (I’ll go anywhere if I can earn qualifying miles for under 10 cents/mile in Biz Class.)

  21. “they have a policy where each longhaul international route can only be operated by a single airline”. Well, this is not true. It only holds for US-China routes. Both China Eastern and Air China fly PVG-FRA daily and PVG-CDG (MU daily, CA 3 weekly).

  22. This is a vanity route. Changsha is the entertainment hub of China, so a direct Los Angeles route makes perfect sense on paper.

    Whether your flight is full or not has no bearing on the health of Changsha or Hainan.

    CHINA is ready to play in Hollywood.

  23. If the passenger is not based in Changsha/nearby, then the re-positioning flight would not make sense. Since there are many airlines in that region that fly to LAX that cost just a bit more.

  24. Why both to tell us about it over 2 weeks after deadline for booking (31 Dec. 2015)? In my opinion, this diminishes the value of spending time to read your website. I was reading it for reviews and inside tips. But inside tips are only of value if your readers can benefit.

  25. As a tradition of the cooperation between local governments and airlines, the local government of Changsha would pay a very very generous subsidy to Hainan Airline… So it makes sense that Hainan is opening this route… In most cases, the government wants to show it is building an international city. Similar routes like Shenyang to Vancouver by Sichuan Airlines, Nanjing to Los Angeles by China Eastern, Wuhan to San Francisco by China Southern.

    Also Hainan airlines starts to attract passengers from other cities to transit in Changsha then fly to Los Angeles. The airline is doing a promotion that it will pay for the ticket that the passengers fly to Changsha no matter which airlines they take. The amount depends on the cabin class, 600 CNY/1400 CNY for Y/C. Considering the ticket price in mainland China, it is sufficient for most cities nearby.

    By the way, nowadays there are many Chinese who do not know they can choose seats online… But I believe it is a very empty flight…

  26. For Chinese, it’s not a culture to stick to assigned seats (so they don’t usually assign seats beforehand). It’s not uncommon that after they get onboard they start shuffling seats like musical “hey you, why don’t you come here and sit with me!” “Oh, you can go and sit with aunt Wong while I talk with Mrs Chu”. Usually it takes about 20 minutes before they will settle down who sit with who. The seat allocation means nothing.

  27. I cant remember the last time I took a flight that wasnt at least 90% full!

    I just looked at the seat map my DOH-LHR flight this Friday (on QA A380) and its completely full!

  28. @Michael Kao

    Please speak only what you know and not what you imagine, with or without prejudice. I personally fly over 30 legs on domestic flights in China each year and never seen something like you described. Yes people ask for seat changes from time to time, but nothing out of the ordinary- old friends happen to be on the same plane, kids separated from parents etc. And they stick to their assigned seats if they are declined.

  29. @Bob Trial – Changsha would be the most populous city in the US… That’s laughable. Look at it in terms of metro area. LA may have a population of around 4 million inside the city limits, but close to 18 million for the entire metro area. But then again, it’s easy to present statistics in ways that best benefit your arguement, so props to you 😉

  30. Changsha is a major city and economic hub. Although not sure why LA, it would have made more sense to have flights from manufacturing areas such as Chicago. The flights are most probably highly government subsidized to allow Chinese businessmen easy access to the US from the province. I won’t be surprised if seats are already purchased by Chinese firms as often done. I’m sure this is also favored by the large Chinese populations in LA and the suburbs.

    @me: have you actually flown on this airline to comment on how terrible it is our are you just making baseless comments?

  31. Never assume that HNA’s commercial department is doing something logically. Having worked with them extensively, I can vouch for the fact that they employ some of the most clueless people in the world. There are a handful of really sharp people at the top, but the skill set drops away considerably below that.

    I would not be surprised if the flights are really wide open. They have started flights before which made even less sense, like Istanbul to Urumqi and Kolkata to Shenzhen – neither which lasted longer than you would take to check the seat map. I think CCU-SZX lasted a whole week before they cut it.

  32. U should wether turn down this post or this will raise serious issue on your point of view upon the asia pacific market also future development ,the alternative could be and more reasonably to to be that you apologise for this and showing respect also the seriousness of your future post !

  33. Strangely, the entire 2 front rows in biz class cabin are taken on both flights. Might they be actually comped seats given to reporters, blogger, etc. for free??

  34. Thanks Lucky,
    We bought two Business Class tickets to LAX-CSX-LAX yesterday leaving February 2 and returning February 15. We’ll spend 72 hours under new 72 hour visa waiver begun January 1, 2016 to see new city for us then head to BKK. We usually take AA 1st class, using points to PEK or PVG (two cities we like to spend 72 hours in transit, also CAN) then on to other warmer parts of SE Asia during the winter months. We’ve never flown Hainan and look forward to the trip and exploring a new Chinese city. The price was right! Thanks again.

  35. The emptiest flight we took was a flight into Ashgabat, Turkmenistan on Lufthansa, flying out of Frankfurt. We stopped in Azerbaijan on the way there and almost everyone got off. It was crazy there were two of us left in business and a couple of people in economy and it was a large plane! Apparently there were plans to cancel the Baku-Ashgabat segment in the next few months. The flight was surreal but then Ashgabat is pretty surreal anyway!

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