How to Fly Mainland China's Top Airlines With Points and Miles
According to the International Air Transport Association, or IATA, China is set to overtake the US as the largest aviation market in the world as soon as 2024 in terms of passenger numbers. China’s population is already taking to the skies in unprecedented numbers, and the country has even started manufacturing its own commercial passenger jets to compete with the likes of Boeing and Airbus. Don’t feel too bad for the aviation giants, though. They’re still getting plenty of aircraft orders from the Middle Kingdom.
A Growing Market for Air Travel
The rapid growth of China’s aviation industry has meant a proliferation of new Chinese airlines in recent years and decades, but established carriers like China Southern have also become some of the largest airlines in the world in terms of fleet size and passenger numbers.
Not only that, but US airlines are also making major investments in their Chinese counterparts — Delta acquired a $450 million stake in China Eastern in 2015, while American took a $200 million stake in China Southern earlier this year. Both moves are meant to increase connectivity and cooperation across the airlines’ route networks. China Eastern and China Southern passengers will be funneled more seamlessly to Delta and American’s US routes and US passengers will benefit from connecting to the Chinese carriers’ flights in China and beyond.
All that means you're more likely not only to fly one of these carriers to Asia, but also to fly one within the region once you’re there in the coming years. And that likelihood will only increase.
With that in mind, we thought it would be a good idea to create a brief comparison of some of Mainland China’s major airlines — their fleets, hubs and partnerships — and how you might be able to use your miles to fly them.
While there are plenty of Chinese airlines out there, including some with whimsical names like Joy Air and Lucky Air, we’re not going to cover all of them here. Instead, we’re just going to concentrate on the major carriers that are in an alliance, or that have at least one route to/from the US. We’re also not including Hong Kong-based airlines like Cathay Pacific, its subsidiary Cathay Dragon or Hong Kong Airlines in this comparison.
Here’s a quick snapshot of how the carriers stack up.
|Airline||Hubs||Destinations||North American Destinations||Alliance/Partners|
|Air China||Beijing (PEK)||Over 200||Honolulu (HNL), Houston (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), Newark (EWR), San Francisco (SFO), San Jose (SJC), Washington (IAD), Montreal (YUL), Vancouver (YVR)||Star Alliance and additional partners such as Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic|
|China Eastern||Shanghai Hongqiao (SHA), Shanghai Pudong (PVG)||Over 120||Honolulu (HNL), Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), San Francisco (SFO), Vancouver (YVR)||SkyTeam|
|China Southern||Guangzhou (CAN), Beijing (PEK)||Over 220||Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK) San Francisco (SFO), Toronto (YYZ), Vancouver (YVR)||SkyTeam and Sichuan Airlines|
|Hainan Airlines||Haikou (HAK), Beijing (PEK)||112||Boston (BOS), Chicago (ORD), Las Vegas (LAS), Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), San Jose (SJC), Seattle (SEA), Calgary (YYC), Toronto (YYZ)||Alaska, Etihad, Hong Kong Airlines, Virgin Australia and various Chinese carriers|
|Shenzhen Airlines||Shenzhen (SZX), Guangzhou (CAN)||79||None||Star Alliance and others such as Cathay Dragon and Air Macau
|Sichuan Airlines||Chengdu (CTU)||70||Los Angeles (LAX), Vancouver (YVR)||China Southern and other Mainland carriers like ShanDong|
|Xiamen Air||Xiamen (XMN), Fuzhou (FOC), Hangzhou (HGH)||Over 70||Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), Seattle (SEA), Vancouver (YVR)||SkyTeam|
Now for the details on each.
1. Air China
Began operation: 1988
Alliance and non-alliance partners: Air China is a member of Star Alliance, and also partners with Air Macau, Cathay Dragon, Cathay Pacific, Shandong Airlines, Tibet Airlines, Uni Air, Virgin Atlantic and its own Inner Mongolia and Dalian subsidiaries.
Fleet size: Air China currently has about 400 passenger and freight aircraft under its own banner, or more if you're including the fleets of subsidiary airlines.
Hubs: As China’s flag carrier, it should come as no surprise that the airline’s primary hub is at Beijing Capital Airport (PEK), though it also has a hub in Chengdu (CTU).
Destinations: Nearly 200 cities including over 100 domestic destinations.
Routes to North America: Air China currently flies from Beijing to Honolulu (HNL), Houston (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), Newark (EWR), San Francisco (SFO) and Washington DC (IAD), and from Shanghai (PVG) to San Jose (SJC). It also flies to Montreal (YUL) and Vancouver (YVR) from Beijing.
Sample seat size and configuration: The airline uses a mix of 777-300ERs and 747-8s on most of its routes to/from the US. On the 777, its first-class seats are 23 inches wide and have 80 inches of pitch in a 1-2–1 configuration. Business-class seats are like those on some United and KLM aircraft. They are in a 2–2–2 configuration where each lie-flat seat is 22 inches wide and has 60 inches of pitch. The economy cabin, meanwhile, is mostly in a 3–3–3 configuration and each seat is 18 by 32 inches. The 747-8’s seats are all roughly the same, though there is a larger first-class section and the seats are more like open suites.
Many of Air China’s domestic flights are on a mix of 777s and A330s. However, many are serviced by smaller jets like the Boeing 737, where first-class seats are 21 inches by 38-40 inches and economy seats are 18 inches by 31 inches.
Miles to use: Thanks to Air China’s membership in Star Alliance, you’ll likely want to use either Aeroplan (for now) miles, which you can transfer from American Express Membership Rewards or Starwood Preferred Guest at a 1:1 ratio, or United MileagePlus miles, which transfer from Chase Ultimate Rewards.
United will charge you 35,000, 80,000 or 120,000 miles each way from the US to China in economy, business or first class respectively.
Aeroplan charges 37,500 miles each way in economy…
And 75,000 miles for business class or 105,000 miles for first class.
Alternatively, you could use ANA miles (also an Amex transfer partner) at rates of 45,000, 80,000 or 165,000 miles round-trip in economy, business or first class respectively. However, it can be a bit more of a process to book awards with this carrier, and partner awards must be roundtrip.
2. China Eastern
Began operation: 1988
Alliance and non-alliance partners: China Eastern is a member of SkyTeam.
Fleet size: Over 600 aircraft, though its flagship long-haul planes are Boeing 777-300ERs.
Hubs: Shanghai’s two airports, Hongqiao (SHA) and Pudong (PVG), are this airline’s major hubs. However, along with China Southern, it expects to create an additional hub at a new airport in Beijing in 2019.
Destinations: 121 at time of writing.
Routes to North America: China Eastern flies from Shanghai Pudong to Honolulu (HNL), Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), San Francisco (SFO) and Vancouver (YVR).
Sample seat size and configuration: China Eastern’s 777-300ERs have six open suite-style first-class seats, each 26.5 inches wide and 79 inches long. Business-class seats are in a 1–2–1 reverse-herringbone configuration and each is 23.6 inches wide and 75 inches long. The economy cabin is mostly 3–4–3 with seats that are a mere 17 inches wide and have 32-33 inches of pitch.
Seats on the aircraft it uses on domestic and regional routes — mostly Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s — tend to be 17 inches by 31 inches in economy and 20 inches by 36 inches in business.
Miles to use: As noted above, China Eastern is in SkyTeam along with partners Delta, Air France/KLM and Korean Air. Delta is a 1:1 transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, and charges 40,000 miles and about $200 in taxes and fees each way in economy…
Or 95,000 miles and about $250 in business class at the lowest level.
Air France/KLM’s Flying Blue program is a 1:1 transfer partner of all four major transferable points programs: Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, and will charge you 40,000 miles in economy and 100,000 miles in business class and a little less in taxes and fees. However, I found that Air France’s site wasn’t pulling up award availability, so you might have to call in to book awards.
One other option would be to use Korean Air SkyPass miles since the program is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. Just keep in mind that you have to book partner awards like this as round-trips. Though Korean Air’s award search can get a bit wonky, it’s worth trying to book through there since SkyPass will charge you 90,000 miles round-trip in economy and 155,000 round-trip in business class — a relative bargain compared to the other two programs.
3. China Southern
Began operation: 1988
Alliance and non-alliance partners: Like China Eastern, China Southern is a member of SkyTeam, but also partners with Sichuan Airlines.
Fleet size: China Southern’s fleet consists of nearly 700 aircraft, though that includes both passengers and cargo planes. It carries well over 100 million passengers per year, which makes it the largest airline in China.
Hubs: The airline’s main hubs are the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou (CAN) and Beijing (PEK) with secondary hubs in Urumqi (URC) and Chongqing (CKG) among other cities.
Destinations: The airline currently flies to 220 destinations.
Routes to North America: China Southern flies from Guangzhou to Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), San Francisco (SFO), Toronto (YYZ) and Vancouver (YVR); and from Wuhan (WUH) to San Francisco.
Sample seat size and configuration: North Americans are likely to fly either the A380, 777-300ER or 787 to China. On board the A380, the first-class seats are in a 1–2–1 configuration and are 26 inches wide and 83 inches long. Business-class seats are in an alternating 1–2–1 front-facing configuration with seats that are 24 inches wide and have 77 inches of pitch. The economy seats, meanwhile, are in a mostly 3–4–3 layout and are 17 inches wide and have 32 inches of pitch.
The A320s the airline uses on many domestic routes have business-class seats that are 22 inches wide and have 42-44 inches of pitch, while economy seats are 19 inches wide and have 30 inches of pitch.
Miles to use: The mileage options with China Southern are pretty much the same as with China Eastern; your best bets are to use Delta SkyMiles, Korean Air miles or Flying Blue miles.
4. Hainan Airlines
Began operation: 1993
Alliance and non-alliance partners: Hainan is not in an alliance but partners with 12 other airlines including several other Chinese carriers (many of which are owned by Hainan’s parent company, HNA Group) plus Alaska, Etihad, Hong Kong Airlines and Virgin Australia.
Fleet size: 189 aircraft including passenger and cargo planes.
Hubs: The airline’s two main hubs are at Haikou (HAK) and Beijing (PEK), though you’ll find flights to/from the US operating from a few other airports including Changsha (CSX).
Destinations: 112 at time of writing, with about a half-dozen more launching imminently.
Routes to North America: Hainan flies from Beijing to Boston (BOS), Chicago (ORD), Las Vegas (LAS), San Jose (SJC) and Seattle (SEA); from Changsha (CSX) to Los Angeles (LAX); Shanghai (PVG) to Boston and Seattle (SEA) and Chongqing (CKG) to New York (JFK). It also flies from Beijing to Calgary (YYC) and Toronto (YYZ).
Sample seat size and configuration: Hainan flies Boeing 787-8s and 787-9s to its North American destinations. While the airline plans to install new reverse-herringbone business-class seats on its upcoming 787-9 deliveries, for now, its existing 787-8s and 787-9s have the old version. Those are in a front-facing 2–2–2 configuration where each seat is 22.5 inches wide and reclines to 74 inches long. The economy cabin seats are in a 3–3–3 layout and each seat is 17 inches wide and has 31-32 inches of pitch.
Miles to use: Hainan’s main US partner is Alaska. Though this wouldn’t be my first preference for using Alaska miles, you would need just 30,000 miles each way in economy or 50,000 miles in business class to fly from North America to Asia.
5. Shenzhen Airlines
Began operation: 1993
Alliance and non-alliance partners: Shenzhen is a member of Star Alliance, though it also codeshares with Air Macau, Cathay Dragon, Kumning Airlines, ShanDong Airlines, Tibet Airlines and Uni Air. Air China is actually a controlling shareholder, so the two airlines’ partnership is quite close.
Fleet size: 173 aircraft.
Hubs: The carrier’s major hub is in, of course, Shenzhen (SZX), though it also has big presences in other cities like Guanghzhou (CAN), Nanjing (NKG) and Xian (XIY).
Destinations: 79, but it flies to more than one airport in some, like Shanghai.
Routes to North America: At the moment, Shenzhen Airlines does not fly to North America. However, it’s included here because it’s such a useful Star Alliance partner for flights within Asia.
Sample seat size and configuration: The two most common aircraft in Shenzhen’s fleet by far are the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737-800. The 737s have first-class seats in a 2 – 2 configuration with 48 inches of pitch, while the economy cabins are 3 – 3 and have 32 inches of pitch. The A320s’ seats have 38 and 31 inches of pitch in first and economy respectively.
Miles to use: Like with Air China, your best mileage bets with Shenzhen are either United or Aeroplan miles. On domestic flights in China, United will charge you 15,000 miles each way in economy and 22,500 miles in first class (because business class isn’t offered). Aeroplan charges 20,000 miles each way in economy, but 55,000 miles in the premium cabins because they’re classified as first class rather than business, so best to avoid that option.
6. Sichuan Airlines
Began operation: 1986
Alliance and non-alliance partners: Sichuan is not part of an airline alliance, but it is owned in part by China Southern, ShanDong Airlines (which is owned by Air China) and Shanghai Airlines (owned by China Eastern).
Fleet size: The carrier currently has just under 130 aircraft.
Hubs: Sichuan’s main hub is the city of Chengdu (CTU) in China’s interior.
Destinations: You might not have heard of Sichuan Airlines, but the airline flies to nearly 70 destinations, including some in North America, not to mention Australia and Europe.
Routes to North America: Sichuan Airlines currently flies from Hangzhou (HGH) and Jinan (TNA) to Los Angeles (LAX), and from Shenyang (SHE) and Zhengzhou (CGO) to Vancouver (YVR).
Sample seat size and configuration: Sichuan flies A330s on its international routes, and unfortunately, these planes look like they’re a bit outdated. Business class is laid out in a 2–2–2 configuration with angled-lie flat seats that are 20 inches wide and 74 inches long while economy is in a 2–4–2 pattern.
Miles to use: Because of its limited network and few codeshares that are eligible to earn with Sichuan’s Golden Panda mileage program (of which there is little information available), you might be out of luck when it comes to using miles. However, Sichuan can be a good choice for cheap premium airfares to/from Asia since there have been round-trip business-class fares as low as $1,850 between the US and China on the carrier this fall and winter.
7. Xiamen Air
Began operation: 1984
Alliance and non-alliance partners: Xiamen is one of the members of SkyTeam, and China Southern is a majority stakeholder.
Fleet size: Xiamen’s fleet consists of around 160 aircraft, all manufactured by Boeing.
Hubs: The airline’s hubs are in its namesake city of Xiamen (XMN), as well as Fuzhou (FOC) and Hangzhou (HGH).
Destinations: Xiamen flies to over 70 destinations.
Sample seat size and configuration: Xiamen flies 787-8s (it has six total) and 787-9s (the airline has three of these) on its North American routes. The 787-8s have the older business class, with seats in a front-facing 2–2-2 configuration like you’ll also find on Hainan. Each is 26 inches wide and 74 inches long. The first-class seats aboard the 787-8s are open suites in a 1–2–1 configuration, and each is 26 by 78 inches. Finally, economy seats are 17 by 32 inches and arranged in a 3–3–3 layout. The 787-9s do not have first class, and their economy seats are also 3–3–3, while the business-class section is configured in a 1–2–1 reverse-herringbone pattern. Economy seats on the 737s it flies domestically are 17 inches by 30 inches, while business class can vary.
Miles to use: As mentioned, Xiamen is in SkyTeam, so your best chances of using miles are to do so with either Delta SkyMiles or Korean Air SkyPass miles. They’ll charge you the same numbers noted above for China Eastern and China Southern, such as this 95,000-mile award from New York to Fuzhou.
As China’s aviation market continues to grow and the country becomes an aircraft manufacturer in its own right, we’re likely to see more and more Chinese carriers flying more and more routes to and from the US as well as within Asia and domestically in China itself. Chances are, if your travels take you over to Asia, you will end up flying one of these carriers or one of the many others that are based over there. That makes now the perfect time to start learning about them — their hubs and route networks, as well as the kinds of miles you can earn and redeem on them.