WITH eyes focused on Middle East carriers such as Emirates and Etihad, China's three largest airlines have flown beneath the radar over the past two years as they boosted flights to Australia.
In 2010 China Southern flew 14 times a week to two Australian destinations.
Now Asia's largest airline has 35 weekly return flights to four cities including Sydney and Melbourne, and plans to boost it to 55 services within the next two years.
For Qantas, Singapore Airlines and other well-established airlines on routes to Australia, the Chinese airlines are the sleeping giants which threaten to dent their earnings in the longer term.
To encourage people to switch airlines, the big Chinese carriers are realising they will have to quickly improve their on-board product. China Southern plans to be flying new Airbus A330-200s on routes from its base in Guangzhou — China's third-largest city, known as Canton — to its four Australian destinations by the end of this year.
That will mean lie-flat beds in business-class and entertainment screens on each seat in economy.
China Southern's executive vice-president, He Zongkai, says the Australian market is one of the airline's most important international markets, and it is looking at whether to use Airbus A380 superjumbos or Boeing 787s on the routes in the longer term.
"Our priority this year is to upgrade our products and also upgrade the aircraft types on all of the Australian routes," he says. "However, in the next two years we will be working hard to increase the flight frequency."
It is also considering whether to make three more Australian cities — Cairns, the Gold Coast and Adelaide — permanent destinations for its planes in the longer term.
To date, the biggest barrier to enticing more Australians to fly via southern China to Europe and other destinations has been the need for them to pay $98 for a one-entry tourist visa if they want to stop over.
Visitors from 45 countries can now stop off in Beijing or Shanghai for 72 hours without having to pay for a visa, and China Southern is lobbying for the same transit visas for Guangzhou.
Following China Southern's aggressive expansion, the Shanghai-based China Eastern has indicated it will will boost services this year. It operates 21 flights a week to Australia including Sydney and Melbourne.
Sichuan Airlines will become the fifth Chinese airline to fly to Australia later this year when it launches thrice weekly services between Chengdu, a city of 14 million people in south-western China, and Melbourne.