In our continuing series on the potential partner airlines Virgin Australia has its eye on, Australian Business Traveller is turning its attention towards China.
Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti wants to have further spokes in the airline's network, which already includes US airline Delta, Aerolineas Argentinas, Etihad from Abu Dhabi and Air New Zealand across the Tasman.
Borghetti explained when and where he's planning to link up in a telephone conference call with Australian Business Traveller. "I mean all of Asia", he said, and nixed a suggestion he was looking for only one airline.
"It could be one, or two, or three, or four," he continued. "The important thing is that we have a strategy that works for us in the long term. It will be a complete strategy."
But the market everyone's watching -- especially Qantas -- is China.
And with Skywest's new routes to Australia's lucrative resource areas, which send much of their output to China, there's clearly a niche for easy and comfortable connections for Australian -- and Chinese -- business travellers.
There are few large airlines unaffiliated with global airline alliances in China, and a surprising (and unusual) level of SkyTeam membership among them. So the significance of a Chinese partner in predicting future airline alliance membership for Virgin Australia is less than, say, in Southeast Asia.
Last week, we looked at the Southeast Asian airline partner options for Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
But who are the Chinese airlines Virgin Australia is looking at -- and what would a partnership with each mean for business travellers?
China Southern is the largest airline in Asia and the main airline at southern Chinese hub Guangzhou.
Within an hour's driving distance of Hong Kong and geographically convenient for connections to the rest of China, Korea and Japan, Guangzhou is an ideal hub location between China and Australia and the second busiest airport in China.
China Southern already flies from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney to Guangzhou -- as well as from Auckland, which could potentially be a useful link to Virgin Australia's ex-Pacific Blue and Polynesian Blue services, plus Air New Zealand domestic and Pacific Islands flights.
Since China Southern is an existing member of the SkyTeam alliance, a particularly strong tie-up with the airline (in combination with Virgin Australia's existing partnership with US airline Delta, a core member of SkyTeam) could signify Virgin Australia's intentions were SkyTeam-bound.
Headquartered in Shanghai, China Eastern is the second largest airline in the People's Republic. China Eastern flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Shanghai Pudong airport year-round, and seasonally from Brisbane.
Unfortunately for its near-term future as a hub airline, its Shanghai base is split over two airports, Hongqiao and Pudong. Most international flights arrive in Pudong, but most domestic flights use Hongqiao. And there's no really convenient way between the two.
Plus, Shanghai isn't really a convenient connection point for southern and Western China, especially when considering options like Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Why fly northeast just to fly southwest again?
The airline plans to join SkyTeam this year, so if Virgin Australia waits until after that move has gone through, China Eastern could be another SkyTeam hint.
Hainan is a smaller player in China -- but only by Chinese standards. The airline, the largest of China's few privately-owned airlines, is only 30 planes smaller than Qantas, with an impressive domestic Chinese focus.
The airline has less of a hub-and-spoke model than most Chinese airlines, which makes it a less attractive option than, say, China Southern's mega-hub at Guangzhou.
Hainan currently has thrice-weekly flights from Sydney to Shenzhen, which continue on to Hangzhou. Shenzhen, just across the river from Hong Kong, is a very useful location for a hub, with geographically convenient connections to most larger Chinese cities.
Subsidiary Hong Kong Airlines -- unsurprisingly based at Hong Kong Airport -- could also contribute to a partnership agreement, with its complementary Chinese and Asian network.
Cathay would probably be the most surprising choice. A oneworld partner of Virgin Australia's rival Qantas, Cathay would have some serious explaining to do if it agreed to join up with Virgin Australia.
Its Hong Kong-based hub network is attractively convenient, though -- and is also outside the PRC's immigration and customs zone, making connections less of a hassle. Subsidiary Dragonair and its matching network into China only sweetens the deal.
But oneworld's the sticking point, with Qantas already funnelling Australian passengers into Cathay's Hong Kong network.
Which Chinese airline do you think would be the best fit? Which has the best service -- and the best hub?
Share your thoughts with our readers in a comment below, or tweet us: @AusBT.
About John Walton
Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.