Photo by Bayne Stanley / Alamy
Until 2012, most trips to Asia followed a familiar and exhausting pattern. Travelers would hop a flight to connect at a major U.S. hub—Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco—then continue to a major Asian city—Beijing, Seoul, or Shanghai—where they might then catch another flight. But in the past three years, new and more fuel efficient aircraft have made many of these stops unnecessary, and airlines have started connecting smaller cities with point-to-point flights more convenient for business and leisure travelers.
Airlines are using the 787 on many of these new flights. Older planes like the Boeing 777 and Boeing 747 have the range to fly these routes, but they cost more to operate and, because they have more seats to fill, airlines were disinclined to fly them to smaller markets. With airlines expecting hundreds of new 787s in the next five years, even more mid-sized cities should see better connections to Asia.
"You can expect any airline that has long-range ambitions is going to look at the U.S. market," says Addison Schonland, an aviation industry consultant at AirInsight. "When you consider that to be the case, you see how many Chinese airlines there are and you see what airplanes they are buying. Sooner or later they are going to look for where the money is. The money is in America."
The trend has greatly benefitted Boston. Until 2012, when Japan Airlines started flights to Tokyo, Boston had never had a nonstop flight to Asia. By June, it will have four. China's Hainan Airlines, which began flying to Beijing last year, will add Shanghai on June 20, while Cathay Pacific launches Hong Kong on May 3. All flights except Hong Kong are on 787s.
Other airports have had similar success. In 2013, Silicon Valley got its first Asian route in seven years when Japan's All Nippon Airways launched new 787 service between San Jose and Tokyo. This June, Hainan will connect San Jose with Beijing with a 787. Other new Dreamliner routes include Japan Airlines' flights from San Diego to Tokyo and United's from Denver to Tokyo.
Chinese carriers like Hainan have been the most aggressive players when it comes to adding routes. The country's fourth-largest airline, Hainan ordered 30 new 787s in March worth $7.7 billion at list prices. And other Chinese carriers are expanding, too. In December, China Southern started the first flights from Wuhan to San Francisco, while China Eastern soon plans to fly from Nanjing to Los Angeles. Air China hasn't yet added new flights from non-traditional hubs, but it's monitoring the trend, says Zhihang Chi, the carrier's vice president of North America.
As for what to expect onboard, Japanese airlines have high service standards, but Chinese carriers are generally less polished than U.S. and European carriers, and cabins tend to be far less luxurious than the ones offered by Middle Eastern airlines like Emirates and Etihad. Travelers report that, on some Chinese airlines, flight attendants speak broken English and provide spotty service. But the airlines flying to the U.S. are safe—China has the top safety rating from the Federal Aviation Administration, and in April the International Air Transport Association commended China for its "exemplary safety record"—and most observers expect they'll improve their onboard products.
"They are going to go about their business making things better and picking up traffic," Schonland says. "Right now the brands aren't well known. But once you fly Hainan—and you realize it's pretty good—you'll fly them again."