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Originally published Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Hainan Airlines president optimistic about company's service to Seattle starting in June

The president of Hainan Airlines stood on a bare concrete slab in his company's new office near Sea-Tac, devoid of even a chair. But the view of...

Seattle Times business reporter

Hainan Airlines

Size of fleet: 70 planes

Composition: Boeing 787 Dreamliner (when available), Boeing 737-300, 737-400, 737-700, 737-800; Boeing 767; Airbus A330, A319

Main routes: Among 90 cities Hainan Airlines serves are Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi'an, Chongqing, Guilin and Urumqi within China, plus Osaka, Japan; St. Petersburg, Russia; Brussels; Budapest, Hungary; and soon Seattle.

Employees: 10,000

The president of Hainan Airlines stood on a bare concrete slab in his company's new office near Sea-Tac, devoid of even a chair.

But the view of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was impressive, and Wang Yingming kept his eyes on the runway.

That's a focus he'll need as Hainan prepares for its first flight from Seattle to Beijing in two months.

The young airline faces a number of challenges in its North American debut June 9.

The eight 787s Hainan ordered from Boeing had been scheduled to arrive in June; they're now delayed until at least March.

The Beijing Olympics, which promised a big boost to summer travel, is clouded by politics. And fuel costs have skyrocketed at a time when the U.S. economy is in the skids.

But Wang says he is undeterred.

Preparations to launch a new route can take a full a year, but to begin service for the summer tourist season, Hainan is finishing in half that time. The Chinese airline had been in talks with the Port of Seattle for several years about new nonstop service; it received approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation to go ahead in February.

Hainan is scrambling to complete its online reservations system and reach code-share deals with U.S. airlines to offer regional connections throughout the Northwest.

"I think we can overcome any challenge," Wang said. "We do things differently. We use our heart to do things. As long as it's like that, I think we can succeed."

Frequent travelers from Seattle, "the gateway to Asia," will appreciate the time savings and convenience of the only nonstop between the Pacific Northwest and mainland China, he said. The flight will be offered four times a week.

China's Hawaii

And although most Americans have never heard of Hainan, China's version of Hawaii, let alone its airline, Wang is confident he can win them over with superior service.

"We pay more attention to our passengers," responding to feedback quickly, he said.

While planning the new route, Hainan Airlines met with Microsoft, Boeing and Seattle IT consulting firm Avanade, Wang said.

One thing the Chinese airline learned about was the Northwest's coffee craving.

Hainan intended to serve instant coffee in economy class until it heard resounding disapproval from prospective passengers. The airline is installing equipment to brew fresh coffee. "Our policies, procedures and standards are determined by our customers, not our managers," Wang said.

But the real question for Hainan's new route is "do they have enough connecting travel on either end to make it work," said Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation-consulting firm in Evergreen, Colo.

No connections yet

Hainan is not yet a member of any airline alliance, so for U.S.-bound travelers, it can't offer connections beyond Seattle, Boyd said.

Its international service is largely unknown, he added. "It could be ho-hum or it could put Singapore [an airline known for good service] to shame," Boyd said.

Founded in 1993, Hainan is China's fourth-largest carrier, behind Air China, China Southern and China Eastern. The top three are state-run companies, but Hainan is not. It trades on the Shanghai stock exchange, and billionaire George Soros was one of its early investors.

While the state-run airlines could often count on support from the government, Hainan had to build its reputation with efficiency, Wang said.

"We have stronger intention to change something, not just do things like old tradition," said Wang, speaking English as his interpreter sat quietly.

Hainan has received performance awards in China for its cabin service nine years in a row, he said. Its planes are busy, operating an average of 10 hours a day.

It also had the best safety record among Chinese airlines over the past two years and has had no major accidents, Wang said.

The Aviation Safety Network, an information service of the Flight Safety Foundation, cites two incidents in Hainan's history.

In 2005, a small regional jet in northeastern China landed on the wrong runway and struck some cables.

And in 1990, two couples armed with knives and dynamite on board a Boeing 737 bound for Hainan Island demanded to be taken to Taiwan.

The hijackers were overpowered by security personnel on board, according to the report.

Neither incident resulted in fatalities.

Hainan has expanded rapidly, ascending along with China's booming economy. It flies to more than 40 cities within China and has international routes to Europe, Russia and Japan.

The airline is headquartered in Haikou, the provincial capital of China's southern most Hainan Island, though Beijing is its main operations hub.

Hainan's fleet is predominantly Boeing planes, and the new 787 Dreamliner was planned for the new Seattle-to-Beijing flight.

"For Hainan, we really want to use 787 because Boeing is here," Wang said. "We want to use a new generation aircraft, but Hainan can't control the delay."

Hainan will use the Airbus A330-200 until the new jet is ready.

The airline is the only early customer of the Dreamliner with service out of Seattle.

The delay won't add significant costs, Wang said, but will cause "a little bit of a slowdown to open new international routes."

He was in Seattle last week to meet with Alaska Airlines and others to discuss partnerships.

In China, Hainan's flight attendants conduct onboard lotteries for free air tickets. In North America, the airline plans seated in-flight yoga.

Hainan also aims to have a speedier check-in than other airlines. "We need to do better than they do," Wang said. "That's our goal."

Until Hainan introduced a special fare last month, ticket sales were lagging.

For now, the airline is taking reservations only by phone. It plans to accept Internet booking in the coming weeks, when merchant agreements are in place.

Hainan will have eight employees at its Seattle office. It hopes to attract U.S. travelers looking for package deals to the Olympics and Chinese visitors heading to the U.S.

A group of college students performing at the Beijing games is requesting about 300 seats on the new flight from Seattle. Wang hopes many more will follow.

"First we want some people to fly, then we provide good service and let them tell other people," he said. "What's that called? Word-of-mouth."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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