China Southern Airlines, the Guangzhou-based airline that is Asia’s largest carrier by fleet size, will soon welcome its 650th aircraft.

The state-owned airline has been on a spree buying hundreds of narrow- and wide-body jets since 2013, when it already boasted a fleet of 400 planes. It now has more planes than Air China and China Eastern, the country’s two other state aviation giants.

On any given day, China Southern operates more than 2,200 flights from its base in Guangzhou and other key hubs to almost 900 destinations worldwide.

Last year it flew 140 million passengers, mostly on its single-aisle Boeing 737s or Airbus A320s.

But it has also wide-body jets such as the A330, the A350, the 777 and 787 – plying routes to Europe, North America, Australia and Africa.

A China Southern Airlines Boeing 777 passenger jet is seen at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. Photo: Zhang Yimo/ planespotters.net
A China Southern Airlines Boeing 777 passenger jet is seen at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. Photo: Zhang Yimo/ planespotters.net
A China Southern Airlines A380 passenger jet roars into the sky from Guangzhou airport. Photo: Ban Ma Li/ planespotters.net

China Southern is currently the only Chinese carrier that operates the Airbus A380 “superjumbo” to haul Chinese tourists and business travelers on intercontinental routes.

There have also been reports that the airline could be the savior to revive the ill-fated A380 program with potential new orders as it scouts out business opportunities while more Chinese tourists flock to exotic spots, after the European planemaker was forced to wind up production because of tepid demand.

Earlier this year, Qatar Airways bought about 5% of China Southern’s shares to become its largest foreign stakeholder, followed by American Airlines.

China Southern is also sitting on a huge cash pile after a 30-billion-yuan (US$4.3 billion) injection in July by Guangdong provincial government and the municipal governments of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The move is part of Beijing’s drive to diversify share ownership of its state carriers.

The carrier has promised in return to launch more routes from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the two economic dynamos in southern China. Indeed, the twin cities are locked in a race to open more intercontinental routes while less local passengers use the neighboring hub of Hong Kong.

Three jets operated by China Southern queue up on a runway at Guangzhou airport. Photo: WeChat
A recent list of China Southern’s fleet. Source: plane spotters.net

China Southern has also doubled down on efforts to poach business from Hong Kong as flyers cancel or delay trips amid the protests that have plagued the city in recent weeks and forced the airport to close on some days.

It has been offering 4,500-yuan one-way premium economy tickets on its Boeing 777 and 787 jets from Guangzhou to New York’s JFK airport – the longest route operated by a Chinese carrier at 12,878 kilometers – for the rest of October as well as November. Cathay Pacific charges at least HK$9,900 for its service to the US city.

On the trunk route to Tokyo, China Southern’s seats have been snapped up at 2,400 yuan, compared with Cathay’s HK$7,300.

The Chinese carrier’s value-for-money approach is underscored by the latest Skytrax ranking, which put it in 14th spot among the world’s 50 best airlines in 2018, with an overall four-star rating.

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