VANCOUVER — Martial artist and film star Jackie Chan tells everyone that Vancouver is the city that made him famous in North America. As Hong Kong Airlines (HKA) kicks into its first North American stop in its long-haul strategy, it is hopeful that its new brand ambassador Chan will work the same charm for it.
HKA touched down its inaugural nonstop daily flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver on June 30 and scheduled its first Vancouver departure to coincide with Canada Day, the nation’s 150th birthday and also the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong leaving British rule.
With Chan as a member of the arrival team on board, the A330-200 (with 264 seats including 18 business class) received the traditional water cannon salute on landing and was met by dignitaries and YVR fanfare, including YVR airport chief executive officer Craig Richmond, who spoofed a fight video ‘Rumble at YVR’ promoting the star’s arrival.
The airline is looking to garner all the publicity it can get as it enters the highly competitive Vancouver-Hong Kong market where it is sparring off against two heavyweights – Cathay Pacific and Air Canada – for direct flight traffic. There’s no doubt Chan was a draw. He participated at various Canada Day celebrations in downtown Vancouver at Canada Place, did a meet and greet for departing Vancouver passengers and met with the press and industry members at an evening function.
“We are honored to be in Canada,” said George Liu, Chief Marketing Officer for Hong Kong Airlines, speaking at the evening session where industry and press members met with Chan at the upscale Fairmont Pacific Rim.
“Vancouver made me famous,” said Chan, referring to Vancouver as his favorite Canadian city. In 1995 Chan filmed ‘Rumble in the Bronx’, a film that established his presence in the North American film industry. Chan, who was already a star in Asia, now has 150 films to his credit.
Chan is also known for this charity work, having founded several charitable organizations in Hong Kong. Meanwhile Hong Kong Airlines is known for its student program providing free airline tickets to groups of deserving students. At the Vancouver event, the airline and Chan linked up with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and presented 20 free airline tickets to the foundation’s students, enabling them to travel to Hong Kong to study.
Hong Kong Airlines is pushing to break out from its traditional regional role and that’s not surprising as many regional carriers in the Asian and Middle Eastern countries are struggling against a shrinking market. Regional carriers in Asia and the Middle East are also seeing their market erode as new rapid transit rail services are being introduced. As well, governments are limiting new routes. In order to survive, the regional carriers are looking to larger markets and eyeing long-hauls.
But regional carriers have a challenge: growing pains. Founded in 2006, HKA is a regional, low-cost carrier that, as a regional, has earned good Skytrax votes, landing it a second place standing in the world ratings. But its name is lacking in Skytrax’s international rankings, lead by giants such as Cathay Pacific. Regional carriers may find that metrics like their reputations for onboard wine and dining can lag as well.
HKA says it has pulled out all the stops to upgrade its food and bar service on the Vancouver-Hong Kong route. At the Vancouver function, the airline introduced foods and a special drink it created for business class passengers travelling on the route.
“Vancouver is world-renowned for having some of the best Cantonese food outside of Hong Kong,” said Christopher Birt, HKA’s general manager of inflight services. Business class passengers on the route out of Vancouver enjoy dishes prepared by award-winning Dynasty Seafood Restaurant. Fairmont hotel mixologist David Wolowidnyk created a signature drink, the Bauhinia (the flower on the HKA logo), available at the bar in business class and served during the Friday evening function.
Hong Kong Airlines says it hasn’t forgotten economy class travellers, with treats including gourmet popcorn complimenting the four preloaded movies available in-flight. HKA is a full-service airline with free inflight meals. It allows passengers up to two 23 kg checked bags (or two 32 kg bags in business class).
The airline is seeing Vancouver as a major gateway – and starting point – and is planning more North American expansions over the next few years. It faces two hurdles: a fleet realignment to accommodate more long-haul traffic, and a shortage of pilots. In June HKA (which has Mainland China ownership) announced it was launching its own pilot training program based in New Zealand. HKA is seeing a shortage of pilots and has planned, according to its press information, to increase its fleet size to 50 aircraft by 2019, a one-third expansion.
Hong Kong Airlines will take delivery of its first A350-900s this year, with new A330-300s arriving next year to help boost capacity on regional services. In early June HKA signed a codeshare agreement with Virgin Airways for 11 Australian destinations and is looking to enter the London market in the near future, but airline analysts predict it will seek out a codeshare partner to help on the highly competitive long-haul route out of Hong Kong.