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British Airways (BA) is literally doubling down on serving Chinese travelers.

The UK’s flagship carrier, which has 50 China-based cabin crew, will hire another 50 local-language staff, Calum Laming, the airline’s chief customer officer told Bloomberg. The staff will be split evenly between Beijing and Shanghai.

The hiring initiative, poised to be largely completed before Lunar New Year in mid-February, will make China British Airways’ second-largest international cabin crew hub behind India.

The focus on serving Chinese travellers isn’t new for the IAG-owned carrier. Back in 2017, the airline introduced Mandarin-speaking customer service representatives at Heathrow Terminal 5’s departure and arrival gates. Their shifts were aligned with the British Airways’ 10 weekly flights to Shanghai and the seven weekly flights to Beijing at the time.

By then, the airline had already partnered with local airlines like China Air for local connectivity, and it had also introduced tailored menus and inflight entertainment for flights to China.

However, the covid-19 outbreak brought Chinese travel to a standstill, and recovery has been slow compared to elsewhere in the world. This year won’t see a complete comeback either—it won’t be before 2025, according to VisitBritain CEO Patricia Yates. But one segment will recover before others, Laming predicts, and that’s premium leisure travel.

Quotable: Premium leisure travelers from China to Britain

“The demand we’ve witnessed, especially in the premium leisure segment, has been exceptionally strong. While business travel is on a more gradual upward trajectory, the summer and festive seasons witnessed a particularly high uptake from premium leisure travellers. We’re optimistic that this trend will continue into the Chinese New Year period.”

Calum Laming, BA’s chief customer officer 

A brief timeline of British Airways in and around China

November 1980: The first British Airways flight to China starts operating. A Boeing 747 departs every Wednesday from Heathrow as part of a deal in partnership with the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).

October 1986: BA flies the Queen to China.

June 2005: BA launches direct flights from London to Shanghai five times a week.

September 2013:  British Airways launches a new route with three flights from Heathrow to Chengdu, home to giant pandas, to complement its existing daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai.

June 2015: The airline launches a quarterly Chinese edition of its in-flight magazine, High Life, made available on flights from China to London starting in June this year. It’s not just a direct translation, but a localised edition tailored to the Chinese traveller, providing relevant, cultural and useful information.

August 2016: BA partners with Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines.

June 3, 2023: After a three-year-long hiatus, BA resumes its Heathrow-Beijing flight.

Britains two big aviation markets: China and India

Airline of interest: Cathay Pacific

Hong Kong’s largest carrier, Cathay Pacific Airways, recently hired 100 crew members from mainland China. By 2025, the airline expects to have 1,500 staff from the neighboring country. In June, the leadership also shared plans to increase Mandarin usage onboard.

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