SAN FRANCISCO — United Airlines is no stranger to China, and with demand for Chinese tourism travel to the U.S. at soaring levels, the carrier is creating an even bigger footprint abroad by expanding to secondary Chinese markets. On May 8, 2016, United celebrated history by operating the first transpacific route to Xi’an, located in the Shaanxi province in Northwest China, from the airline’s San Francisco gateway hub.

There was a palpable energy flowing through the international pier at San Francisco airport (SFO). On the departures level at Gate G-94, the waiting area teemed with soothing classical Chinese music, the scent of delicious beef skewers and colorful art displays adorning the walls and ceilings. A hop down a flight of stairs towards the jet way gave further clues into what was abuzz.

On this particular day, United was gearing up to launch the inaugural service from its trans Pacific gateway hub to Xi’an, one of the oldest cities in China, on-board a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner. Even though the airline is well-known abroad, especially in China, this celebration was unique. United Flight # 853 would become the first scheduled trans Pacific flight ever to land in Xi’an Xianyang International airport.

Welcome sign at gate G-94 with escalators leading down to departures level for flight 853 on May 8, 2016. (Credits: Author)
Welcome sign at gate G-94 with escalators leading down to departures level for flight 853 on May 8, 2016. (Credits: Author)

Following an elegantly-decorated sign, emboldened in vivid red colors with gray silhouettes of the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China from 210 to 209 B.C.E., I took the escalators down to the departures level, enamored by the incredible effort put forth in showcasing the cultural heritage of Xi’an. SFO airport is already renowned for its cutting-edge facilities in the International Terminal, and the plethora of stunning artwork that beautifies the building from floor to ceiling. Today, it resembled a museum more than an airport, with relics of Chinese heritage in the form of colorful posters, tapestries, low-hanging lanterns and two men dressed as the Terracotta Warriors, impeccably adhering to character.

Artwork and life-size cutouts of the Terracotta warriors of Xi’an. (Credits: Author)
Artwork and life-size cutouts of the Terracotta warriors of Xi’an. (Credits: Author)

Xi’an will be United’s second link to interior mainland China, following the successful launch of the Chicago-based carrier’s service to Chengdu in 2014. The city of Xi’an is home to a population of nearly 14 million residents, inclusive of the entire metropolitan area, and has served as a leading anchor for the economic rival of interior China since the 1990s. Although United intends to serve Xi’an on a seasonal basis initially, with service running thrice weekly through October 27, 2016, the carrier aims to tap into the growing wealth of the Chinese middle class, as well as foreign students traveling to the U.S., to play a role in shaping the success of the flight. United will also launch service to another secondary Chinese city, Hangzhou, approximately 100 miles southwest of Shanghai, on July 13, 2016.

Crew of UA 853 takes a photo with the terracotta warriors. (Credits: Author)
Crew of UA 853 takes a photo with the terracotta warriors. (Credits: Author)

Close to the jet bridge, I was greeted by Ed Pivik, Sales and Events Manager for United, and also the mastermind who brings special events like this to life. Mr. Pivik was hardly breaking a sweat in midst of the hustle and bustle of the gate area, but then again, with several inaugural flights lined up at SFO this year, he must be a pro at this stuff already. He mentioned to me that Chengdu was doing “extremely well” for United, and while Xi’an is more a leisure-oriented market for United than some of its other Asian routes, there is plenty of untapped demand to potentially fill-up the front of the cabin with Chinese citizens having a massive appetite for travel abroad.

The live “terracotta warriors” were a huge hit! (Credits: Author)
The live “terracotta warriors” were a huge hit! (Credits: Author)

Still two hours out from scheduled push-back time, the area was starting to fill up as airline and airport personnel trickled in, smiling and laughing as they snapped photographs of the two men dressed as the Terracotta warriors. Xi’an is famous for its collection of statue sculptures depicting the soldiers and horsemen of Qin Emperor. The statues were discovered in 1974 by Chinese farmers roughly 1 mile east of Qin Emperors tomb. Occasionally, a makeup artist would scurry over and apply a touch-up of face paint and mascara to the two men. One maintained a rigid facial expression, poised and graceful, while the other would point to smartphones and cameras with a curious facial expression, eliciting chuckles from small children and adults alike.

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Near the podium, Mr. Pivik greeted and welcomed a crew of smart-looking executives, representing a multitude of stakeholders who worked tirelessly to coordinate the planning and execution of this new route. They were joined by the United Airlines flight and cabin crew members who were scheduled to work the inaugural trip that afternoon. Hugs were exchanged, smiles beamed, cameras flashed and laughter roared.

In February 2016, United celebrated 30 years of serving the Chinese market, having purchased Pan Am’s Tokyo hub, and its corresponding routes to Beijing and Shanghai from Tokyo, back in the mid 1980’s. Initially, travelers between the U.S. and China had to make a stop over in Japan before continuing onto either country in both directions, but an Air Services Agreement signed in 1999 permitted a restricted number of U.S. and Chinese carriers to operate nonstop service between the two countries. United launched nonstop service from San Francisco to Shanghai in April 2000, which remains, to date, the oldest-operated nonstop flight from the U.S. to China on an American carrier.

In fact, the early success of United’s San Francisco – Shanghai flight became a paradigm for continued growth in China, as well as the Asia – Pacific region as a whole. Over the years, United built up additional routes from its San Francisco, Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles and Washington Dulles hubs to Shanghai and Beijing, and once it consummated its merger with Continental Airlines in 2010, it gained nonstop access between New York and Beijing and Shanghai via Continental’s Newark hub.

Post-merger with Continental, United was quick to take advantage of the shift in tourism trends within the Republic of China, as it evolved from a closed to an open environment for inbound and outbound travelers. Combined with the enhanced economics of next-generation aircraft, namely Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, United began to look beyond congested airports in Beijing and Shanghai and onward to secondary markets with upwards of 10 million inhabitants. Faster visa processing times and the relative prosperity of China’s middle class made it clear that there was a high concentration of pent-up demand in other Chinese cities, and the 787 Dreamliner was perfectly suited to launch, “long, thin routes” to markets like Xi’an, Chengdu and Hangzhou that can be viably served 3-4 times per week from the U.S.

United hasn’t been alone in growing its presence between the U.S. and China: both American and Chinese carriers alike have pounced on liberalized route authorities to add seats, frequencies and new routes in the past five years. In 2012, there were 21 daily trans Pacific flights between U.S. and Chinese airports. By the end of 2016, that number will have doubled to 42 daily round trips. The operating efficiency of the 787, moreover, has made many routes possible, such as San Jose to Beijing, Boston to Shanghai and Seattle to Shenzhen

United leapfrogs its primary domestic competitors, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, in terms of its market share between the U.S. and China. The carrier offers 73 weekly flights from six U.S. gateways – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newark, Chicago O’Hare, Washington Dulles and Guam – to Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi’an and soon Hangzhou, come July 2016. It also boasts an advantageous partnership with Air China, the largest Chinese carrier serving the U.S. on a seat and frequency basis, as both are members of Star Alliance. Comparatively, Delta offers 41 weekly flights from Tokyo Narita, Detroit, Seattle and Los Angeles to Beijing and Shanghai, while American offers 35 weekly flights from Dallas/Ft. Worth, Chicago O’Hare and Los Angeles to Beijing and Shanghai.

Today’s inaugural flight included a special press conference with several keynote speakers, representing United Airlines, the City of San Francisco, San Francisco International Airport and San Francisco’s General Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. As passengers excitedly snapped photos with the Terracotta Warriors, munched on sumptuous noodles, sipped on iced Pomegranate and Green Tea and enjoyed fortune cookies with a tagline, “welcome Xi’an to United’s network,” few seats in the gate area were occupied as everyone wanted to get a piece of the action.

Around 12:15 pm local time, Mr. Pivik, running the entire operation like clockwork, announced that the inaugural program was scheduled to begin, and passengers congregated around a small stage and podium to listen to the keynote speakers before the official ribbon cutting.  Today’s “master of ceremonies,” was Mr. Mike Hanna, Vice President of United’s San Francisco hub.

An affable, energetic man with a booming voice that captivated the audience, Mr. Hanna delivered a warm welcome to all guests and thanked them for their patronage to join United on its inaugural flight to Xi’an. He remarked that this was United’s second inaugural service to a new foreign market from SFO this year, following an earlier launch of nonstop service to Tel Aviv, Israel on March 30. He also mentioned that this was also the second inaugural service that United was celebrating this week, as the airline launched nonstop flights to Nashville on May 3.

“For those of you who want to enjoy some country music,” he added, which was received with a several chuckles from a predominantly Chinese group of passengers.

Mr. Hanna remarked that while this is the second iteration in a string of new services from SFO on United to various global points, with Singapore starting June 1, 2016, Auckland on July 1, 2016 and Hangzhou, China on July 13, 2016, he underscored that the Xi’an service remains a top priority for United given the massive importance of Chinese tourism in the United States and vice versa. Cities like Xi’an, previously without direct links to the North American continent, will now be able to draw larger tourism crowds given the enhanced connectivity to San Francisco and beyond via United’s gateway hub at SFO.

Mr. Hanna then introduced Marcel Fuchs, Vice President of Atlantic and Pacific Sales at United, another dynamic personality who stirred up the crowd with his energy. Mr. Fuchs introduced the four Captains who would be flying the inaugural flight to Xi’an, including the Chief Pilot of United’s San Francisco pilot base. He drew parallels to the launch of United’s nonstop flight to Chengdu in 2014, and the significance of focusing on growth in China beyond Shanghai and Beijing. Consistent with that trend, United is creating more channels for customers by adding Xi’an and Hangzhou to its route network, and continuing the tradition of serving, “the beautiful country and people of China.”

But beyond tourism, Mr. Fuchs mentioned that there are other reasons to connect the U.S. to Xi’an: it is critical for developing business, trade, leisure and student exchange ties between the U.S. and China. United States President Barack Obama and the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, have declared 2016 as, “the year of China – U.S. tourism,” with more than 3 million Chinese tourists expected to arrive on U.S. shores by year end.

Finally, Mr. Fuchs noted that this flight would be operated in conjunction with Air China, a valued Star Alliance customer, and how the route connected Silicon Valley with Xi’an’s geographical location at the Eastern end of the Silk Road.

Next to join the team on the stage was Luo Linquan, Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in San Francisco, who greeted the crowd by wishing everyone a, “Happy Mother’s Day,” speaking in Mandarin. His smile was beaming from ear to ear. For Consul General Luo, this was an extremely happy day for the future of U.S. relations with China, and having the privilege to join in the celebrations of the inaugural flight was a big pleasure for him.

Consul General Luo mentioned that in 2015, more than 4.75 million tourists traveled between the U.S. and China, including 2.1 million U.S. tourists visiting China, and 2.7 million Chinese tourists visiting the U.S. Breaking down this figure, this equates to roughly 30,000 people flying each day between the two countries. Reiterating Mr. Fuch’s remarks about 2016 being, “the year of tourism” for China, he expects that number to exceed 5 million visitors, in total, by year end, facilitated, of course, by United’s growth in mainland China. He even alluded to how his sisters have started visiting the U.S. in recent years for extended stays, enjoying the, “beauty of San Francisco,” and feeling at home with nearly 1 million people of Chinese descent living in the Bay Area.

From a commercial perspective, the number of flights between the San Francisco and China is growing at an astonishing speed. In 2013, the number stood at five daily departures to Beijing and Shanghai, whereas in 2016, that number will have more than doubled with new links to Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan, Xi’an and Hangzhou added to SFO’s route map. Three of these (Chengdu, Xi’an and Hangzhou) will be flown on United, while China Southern operates the services to Wuhan and Guangzhou.

After Consul General Luo spoke, it was time for Mark Chandler, Director of San Francisco Mayor’s Office of International Trade and Commerce, to take the stage.

“This is a great day – not just because it’s Mother’s Day, but because we’re flying to Xi’an for the first time,” Mr. Chandler remarked. “[United], you really are helping the city by creating great economic channels, and we’re seeing that development every day. I’ve been to Xi’an, and not only are the Terracotta warriors one of the largest bucket list items, but there are also hundreds of incredibly historic artifacts and places to go, and the food is incredible, particularly Xi’an noodles.”

Luo Linquan, Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in San Francisco, speaks at the podium adjacent to Mike Hanna, Vice President of United’s San Francisco hub. (Credits: Author)
Luo Linquan, Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in San Francisco, speaks at the podium adjacent to Mike Hanna, Vice President of United’s San Francisco hub. (Credits: Author)

The final speaker for the media event prior to the ribbon cutting was Ivar Satero, SFO Chief Operating Officer and soon-to-be new Airport Director.

“The success of this flight is so important to the partnership of SFO and United, all over the world,” he mentioned. “United also commits and promises incredible economic benefits to the Bay Area. At SFO, we pride ourselves on serving the world, and being the U.S. airport with more flights to mainland China than any other U.S. airport, with 73 flights to China per week (over 10 per day), this flight will contribute to the 35% year-over-year growth to China.”

He also touted that SFO airport was also the first U.S. airport to create a dedicated Chinese website, with www.flysfo.cn launched in 2014. In addition, he mentioned the exciting 10-year capital development program in the pipeline to make significant improvements to SFO airport, including United’s Terminal 3 (used to house domestic operations), its international terminal and a new luxury Grand Hyatt hotel to be built on-site with 350 rooms.

“It’s a pleasure to be a part of this celebration,” he added.

Following the speeches, the speakers, as well as Mr. Pivik and several of the United crew members, lined up to take a photo before the official ribbon cutting. Mr. Hanna made the closing remarks thanking the crew, the ground operations personnel, the airport staff, gate agents, terracotta warriors, media and fellow speakers.

 

Ribbon-cutting ceremony with United crew on the inaugural as well as speakers for the media event. (Credits: Author)
Ribbon-cutting ceremony with United crew on the inaugural as well as speakers for the media event. (Credits: Author)

Then, the official boarding process began.

Following visa checks prior to entering the jetway, guests on the inaugural received a gift compliments of United, including a business card holder along with a thank-you note.

Seat 3K in BusinessFirst on United’s 787 Dreamliner. (Credits: Author)
Seat 3K in BusinessFirst on United’s 787 Dreamliner. (Credits: Author)

On-board, I settled into my seat and was warmly greeted by the lovely crew serving the BusinessFirst cabin that afternoon, including Gavin, in-flight service manager, and Noreen, who would be my serving my row throughout most of the flight.

From left to right: gift handed to all enplaning passengers, amenity kit and menu for UA853. (Credits: Author)
From left to right: gift handed to all enplaning passengers, amenity kit and menu for UA853. (Credits: Author)

We had a long taxi out to the runway, and while we encountered a bit of a hold-up prior to take off given the heavy inbound traffic into SFO at that hour, the views of the parallel landings onto SFO’s runways were stunning.

Crossing the Pacific Ocean. (Credits: Author)
Crossing the Pacific Ocean. (Credits: Author)

Once airborne, passengers relaxed into their seats for the 12+ hour flight. Our routing would take us directly west of the California coast for a few hundred miles, before heading up Northwest to meet up with the Alaskan coastline, over Siberia, Mongolia and then straight into Xi’an.

Crossing north to the Alaskan coastline. (Credits: Author)
Crossing north to the Alaskan coastline. (Credits: Author)

Lunch service commenced approximately one hour into the flight. The menu for today’s flight included 5 courses for the main meal, a mid-flight snack (both a hot option as well as self-serve bar) and a hot breakfast prior to arrival.

Menu: Inaugural service from SFO to XIY

To Begin

  • Prosciutto melon with garnishes
  • Fresh seasonal greens with tomatoes, kalamata olives, parmesan cheese and croutons with a choice of ranch or italian dressing

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Main

  • Tenderloin of beef: asiago broth, brown butter gnocchi and green asparagus, OR
  • Kung pao chicken: chile sauce, bell pepper, Chinese broccoli with mushrooms and steamed rice OR
  • Newburg-style seafood: fillet of turbot and shrimp with creamy lobster sauce, green lentils and mixed vegetables, OR
  • Stir-fry noodles: beef in oyster sauce, dim sum and bell pepper.

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To Finish

  • International Cheese Selection, including grapes and crackers served with Port
  • Gelato with your choice of toppings

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Mid-Flight Snack

  • Chinese-style soup, with noodles, won ton, shrimp, scallops, vegetables and mushrooms in a savory broth

Prior to arrival

  • Pepper Jack cheese omelet with black beans, corn, roasted pepper with red skin and sweet potatoes, chicken sausage and corn and black bean medley
  • Congee: traditional Chinese-style rice porridge with chicken, corn and mushrooms
  • Cereal and Banana with milk

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Landing in Xi’an was smooth, with stunning views of the city and surrounding farmlands. Taxi to the gate was short, and after we disembarked, special guests, media, the crew and Mr. Fuchs (who came on the inaugural) headed down to the tarmac to take photos by the Dreamliner aircraft.

A dreamy descent into Xi'an. (Credits: Author)
A dreamy descent into Xi’an. (Credits: Author)

The plane looked radiant in the late afternoon Chinese sun, and just as it had been in the departures area at SFO roughly 14 hours before, the ground staff at Xianyang airport greeting us was beaming with pride upon receiving the inaugural flight.

UA853 Cabin Crew in Xi'an. (Credits: Author)
UA853 Cabin Crew in Xi’an. (Credits: Author)

United had sent out a team of personnel to Xi’an in advance to accommodate passengers and help train the staff for the inaugural services. Some came from world headquarters, while others were station agents based out of some of United’s other Asian cities, such as Shanghai and Tokyo. The incredibly hospitable staff at Xi’an handed out gifts and posed for selfies as the refreshing breeze blew in our faces.

The author and the friendly United staff at Xi'an.
The author and the friendly United staff at Xi’an.

The highlight of the trip was rolling out the big red and blue banners that proudly said, “Celebration of United Airlines’ Xi’an to San Francisco Inaugural Flight,” as well as, “HNA Aviation Technic Welcome United Airlines First Flight to Xi’an, China.”

HNA Aviation staff welcoming United's first flight to Xi'an. (Credits: Author)
HNA Aviation staff welcoming United’s first flight to Xi’an. (Credits: Author)

It was a journey of a lifetime. You felt part of a team, on both sides of the ocean, from two completely separate worlds. Knowing that the final delivery on United’s inaugural flight to Xi’an was met with that level of energy and positivism, I have no doubt that United’s mission to expand its strategic footprint in China will be a resounding success.

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