The new long-haul link was originally devised to be flown by the 787 but the enforced grounding earlier this year and subsequent delivery delays mean that it is initially being flown with an Airbus A340-600.
The inaugural service arrived at O’Hare’s Terminal 5 on September 3, 2013 after receiving a customary water cannon salute from the Chicago Fire Department while making its way from the runway to the apron. It is the second destination to be served by the Chinese carrier in the US and third in North America. Hainan Airlines made its debut in the region in 2008 when it introduced flights between Beijing and Seattle, a route it serves on a daily basis during the peak summer season, while a link between Beijing and Toronto, Canada was added in 2010.
A large number of dignitaries from China and US were in Chicago to welcome the arrival of the inaugural flight. "I am pleased to welcome a Hainan's new airline service to Chicago, bringing business and leisure customers while creating jobs and economic opportunity at the airport and throughout the city," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
This new air service will not only support the increasing demand for direct services between Beijing and Chicago but also provide connectivity to other destinations at each end of the route. Hainan offers more than 400 weekly flights from its Beijing hub, including service to more than 60 Chinese cities. At Chicago, passengers will be able to access a wide variety of connections in the US and the Americas through Hainan’s codeshare agreement with American Airlines.
Hainan Airlines enters a market already served by both American Airlines and United Airlines. According to MIDT data, an estimated 115,437 bi-directional O&D passengers flew between Beijing and Chicago in 2012 with United holding a 65 per cent share and American a 21 per cent share of this traffic. The 2012 demand figure represented an 8.9 per cent rise on the level in 2011, which itself was up 27.0 per cent on the previous year, showing the strong growth of this market.
The new Beijing – Chicago route will initially be operated on a twice weekly basis with the three-class A340-600 providing seating for 288 passengers. Hainan plans to introduce the Dreamliner on the service from November 10, 2013, making it the first international route operated by Hainan's new B787 aircraft and the first transpacific route operated by the type from O'Hare. The arrival of the 787, which is configured with 36 Business Class and 177 Economy seats will initially result in a reduction in capacity but from December 10, 2013 Hainan Airlines will double its schedule to four times weekly and it plans to grow to a daily operation from the end of May 2014.