Brian's Blogs

Flight-rail cooperation a win-win situation

The recent news that after two years of competing with high-speed rail lines, Chinese airlines are now trying to find a mutually beneficial solution with the rail network must surely be welcomed; though it does beg the question of why this approach hadn't been sought after long ago, at the time the high-speed rail lines were actually in the planning stages.

Hainan Airlines has launched a joint operating program with Yuehai Railway, which runs the high-speed rail between Haikou and Sanya in Hainan province, allowing passengers to buy high-speed rail tickets from Haikou to Sanya when booking tickets on any Hainan Airlines flight to Haikou.

There’s no denying that China's high-speed rail service has had an adverse effect on airlines' domestic business, with one insider adding that heavy taxes and fees imposed on Chinese airlines "seriously restrain" their capability for sustained growth. In general terms, high-speed rail services most affect competition with flights of less than 500 kilometers. And of course, cities that are getting high-speed rail services are also the most profitable for China’s airlines. All three of the major state-owned airlines have cited high-speed rail as a major factor affecting their bottom lines. So, joint ticketing between airlines and high-speed rail could perhaps be a way forward for the industry.

In many parts of the world where major cities lie in close proximity to one another, air traffic congestion is a serious problem. This is especially true in Europe, where flight delays appear more and more to be the norm during the summer months, due to the sheer volume of flights between burgeoning hubs and secondary airports, irrespective of strike action, which is also becoming boringly predictable.

There is nowadays a “perceived wisdom” that travelers are happy to consider a rail journey of up to three hours as an acceptable alternative to air travel, so long as there is the same degree of comfort and the two are seamlessly connected. France is a prime example in Europe of how such cooperation can work.

The French government long ago realized the advantages of having excellent transport links and subsidizes what it regards as the transport backbone of the country. In the past 20 years it has built 1,500 kilometers of high-speed rail tracks between Paris and major regional cities, as well as to Brussels, on which it operates TGV trains (Trains à Grande Vitesse) at speeds up to 300 kmh.

It is also becoming less economical for airlines to fly short sectors, because of high landing fees, which cancel out a large portion of their profits. And if the take-off and landing slots can be used for long haul routes instead of being “wasted” on these short haul flights, more profitable international services can be substituted. In addition, holding patterns near crowded airports that drain fuel can be avoided, reducing pollution, and pleasing environmentalists. Truly a win-win situation!

Back in China, a whole load more high-speed rail lines are due to open at the end of this year, meaning that the airlines will face increasing competition from 2013 onwards. Would it not make a lot of sense for some of the feeder flights presently serving regional airports to be replaced by rail links and let the airlines concentrate on the more profitable longer routes?

More important, why couldn't the same transport operator run both trains and planes? Even though the technology is different, the business is basically the same: transporting passengers from A to B; and in a hub-and-spoke network, it would make sense for an airline to control its feeder markets, whether by air or rail.

Although the industry appears on the one hand to be hurting very much at the moment, there is obviously light at the end of the tunnel, given that some of China’s airlines have recently been trying to recruit elite foreign pilots from the US to meet their growing demand as the industry gains momentum. It is reported that more than 10 airlines have joined this hunting activity in the US over the past three months, and large-scale job fairs have been held in Miami and Las Vegas, attracting more than 1,000 applicants to fill around 200 posts at China's airlines, according to ABC. The number of pilots in China is also expected to increase from 24,000 to 40,000 by 2015, according to the 12th Five-Year Plan issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

On a very small scale, the arrival of the metro system in Dubai three years ago, with stations at two of the three airport terminals, revolutionized transportation in the UAE almost overnight. Even on Britain’s creaking rail network (which surely would have been consigned to the knackers’ yard if it had been a horse), the provision of stations actually inside airports makes for a sensible alternative to hub-and-spoke flights around the country.

It is therefore to be hoped that cooperation will be actively encouraged between China’s high-speed railways and the airline companies for the mutual benefit and prosperity of the country at large.

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