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Originally published Tuesday, June 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Hainan Airlines touches down with nonstop Seattle-Beijing service

The airline's new nonstop Beijing-Seattle service is a route that will strengthen ties with the state's biggest trading partner.

Seattle Times business reporter

As Hainan Airlines launched its new nonstop service between Beijing and Seattle Monday, it exemplified a wave of Chinese companies expanding their operations and brands in the international market.

But the first passengers to take off from Seattle were oblivious to that fact. What they liked was the ticket price.

For June and July, Hainan offered round-trip fares from Seattle to Beijing of about $650 in economy class and about $2,500 in business class.

Lyle Smith, of Waco, Texas, was sitting in Hainan's departure area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, awaiting a 2 p.m. flight to Beijing. He wondered about all the activity in the adjacent reception area.

"I had no idea this was their first flight," he said.

Before Smith bought his ticket online as part of a journey from Texas to Siberia, he had never heard of Hainan Airlines.

A few minutes later, an Airbus A330 carrying more than 50 officials from China touched down at Sea-Tac under misty skies. The visitors were greeted by about 150 guests, including Gov. Christine Gregoire, at a reception with champagne and a five-piece ensemble playing traditional Chinese music.

The celebration in Beijing was more subdued because of the recent earthquake in Sichuan province, a Hainan spokesman said.

Hainan Airlines Chairman Chen Feng, speaking through an interpreter, expressed lofty goals for the new flight: to be a bridge between China and the U.S., make Seattle a new hub for travel between the U.S. and Asia, boost the Seattle-area economy and support the growth of tourism on both sides.

Chen said Hainan has built its brand in China based on "the best record in safety, the best performance and the best service."

"Hainan is Singapore Air and Lufthansa in China," he said, breaking into English, "and not American, United and Northwest." The flight attendants on Hainan would be "very young, very beautiful and very nice smell," he added.

Chen said he hoped the new flight would help more Americans go to China, saying they know less about the country than Chinese people know about the United States.

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Gregoire called the new flight "a dream come true." This past year, China became the state's largest trading partner, with state exports rising 40 percent to about $9 billion.

"You can't do business if you don't have capacity to have that direct flight," she said.

Gregoire said the new service "comes at a time when other parts of the nation are facing a struggling economy, and airlines are being impacted by high fuel prices and even consolidating or limiting existing flights."

Liu Guang Yuan, minister of the embassy of the People's Republic of China in Washington, D.C., recalled that 30 years ago a Chinese cargo ship docked in Seattle, establishing the first trade.

"Today it will go down in history as a demonstration of even closer ties between China and Washington state," he said.

Hainan is the fourth international carrier to launch a new flight to Seattle in the last year, after Air France, Aeromexico and Lufthansa.

With the dollar at a low against many foreign currencies, planes with visitors to the U.S. are often fuller than those with Americans traveling abroad.

The flight from Beijing to Seattle was about 80 to 85 percent full, a Hainan spokesman said. Hainan has sold about 70 percent of its seats in June, said Joel Chusid, the airline's North American general manager.

The flight operates four times a week. Hainan ordered eight Boeing 787s for the new route, but the jets — originally scheduled to be delivered this month — were delayed until next year.

Besides Seattle, Chen said, Hainan will soon launch new service between Boston and Beijing.

A traditional water salute greeted Hainan's plane as it taxied toward the terminal. Currently Hainan is the only carrier to offer nonstop service between Seattle and Beijing, but Northwest Airlines is planning service along the same route next March.

Hainan's flight attendants and staff had a week of intensive English language training to prepare for the flight.

Peter Ren, a Hainan Airlines purser based in Beijing, said he learned that Americans ask "how are you doing?" instead of "how are you?" and sometimes they don't say "you're welcome" but "you bet."

Passengers flying Monday from Seattle would get Chinese fans on board as gifts, he said.

On the flight from Beijing, one passenger was to win a ticket to the NBA Finals. Former Seattle Sonics star Gary Payton is working with Hainan Airlines and the NBA in China.

For Smith, taking the first flight was good news.

"They'll be on their best behavior," he said.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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