Aviation Memorabilia Newsletter Since 1995

Aviation Memorabilia Newsletter

Since 1995

wayne albertson articles

China's 'Big Three' Airlines

It is always fascinating to look back at events of the past to see how they have shaped our modern world. Those of us whose careers have been in aviation will always remember the beginnings of airline deregulation in the early 1980's and the effects on our careers through that decade and into the 2000's. 

Privatization, mergers, restructuring, alliances and bankruptcies almost seemed to be a part of our daily lives. 

During this period, the world's most populous country's aviation market also went through its own deregulation and the break up of an airline monopoly. 

The People's Aviation Company of China was the airline division of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) in the People's Republic of China. It was founded in 1952 and held a monopoly until the late 1980's when it was broken up and initially divided into six regionally based airlines to encourage a free market approach to the industry and availability to the general population. 

  • Air China, the flag carrier, based in Beijing, inherited the IATA and ICAO airline codes of CAAC.
  • China Southwest Airlines, based in Chengdu (merged into Air China in 2002).
  • China Eastern Airlines, based in Shanghai.
  • China Northwest Airlines, based in Xi'an (merged into China Eastern in 2002).
  • China Southern Airlines, based in Guangzhou.
  • China Northern Airlines, based in Shenyang (merged into China Southern in 2003).

Today the 'Big Three' consist of Air China (fleet of 490), China Eastern (fleet of 617) and China Southern (fleet of 653). A combined fleet of 1760 (as of this writing). Had the monopoly not been broken up, there is no doubt that it would now be the world's largest airline in fleet size. 

It's hard to say if there is actually full deregulation within China but each airline does seem to have its unique brand and alliances. 

Air China is a member of Star Alliance and is the primary international carrier.

China Eastern and China Southern are members of the SkyTeam alliance and have a codeshare agreement with WestJet. 

China Southern also has a limited codeshare agreement with Air Canada.

A fourth airline of considerable size (fleet of 217), Hainan Airlines is based in Haikou in Hainan Province and was established in October 1989. It had not been a part of the original airline monopoly.




china airlines