But less than three years after British Airways found a Heathrow slot to fly to the Chinese megacity, and on the eve of a decision to build a new runway, the airline has dropped the route because it is not commercially viable.
BA launched direct flights to Chengdu, its fourth Chinese destination, in late 2013, and ran return flights five times a week. Even after having trimmed down the frequency and switched to a smaller, Boeing 787 plane, BA has confirmed that the service will end this January.
Launching Heathrow’s first submission to the Airports Commission in November 2012, the airport’s chief executive, Colin Matthews, said a lack of capacity was limiting Britain’s ability to connect to growing cities in emerging markets, such as Chengdu in China.
Two months earlier, the lack of direct flights to Chengdu was highlighted in an intervention from senior Conservatives that prompted the then prime minister, David Cameron, to set up Sir Howard Davies’s commission and pave the way for expansion.
In the opening line of an article demanding whether Cameron was “man or mouse”, MP Tim Yeo wrote: “What better way to kickstart Britain’s sluggish economy than by boosting trade with China? Perhaps with Chongqing, with 28 million consumers, many enjoying rising incomes. Or Chengdu, with 14 million.”
A year before that, the then mayor of London, Boris Johnson, lamented the Chengdu-goer’s plight as he again argued for more runway capacity. “We are making it harder for British business people to get to the future megacities from London than from our competitor airports. If you want to fly to Chengdu … you can get there direct from one of London’s Continental rivals – but you can’t get there from Heathrow,” he said in a comment piece.
In a statement, BA said on Monday: “We regret that we have decided to suspend the Heathrow to Chengdu route. We have a proud tradition of flying to China but despite operating this route for three years it is not commercially viable.”
Willie Walsh, the chief executive of BA’s parent company IAG, has previously blamed the British visa regime for the disappointing traffic on the route.
A spokeswoman for the airport said a “degree of ebb and flow on demand on specific routes” was normal, adding: “The record shows Heathrow overall has gained and maintained new long-haul routes that are so critical for the British economy.” Destinations in emerging markets such as Vietnam and Indonesia were among the six long-haul routes added since 2010, she said.
A spokesperson for Gatwick, which still hopes to beat Heathrow in building London’s next runway, said: “Lack of current connectivity to some markets – in China for instance – is less to do with capacity and more to do with lack of demand. When slots have become available, airlines at Heathrow have been consistently adding capacity on these profitable routes – such as North America and Europe – rather than use them for emerging markets.”
BA’s 787 plane and Heathrow slot will be used to fly to New Orleans instead.
The UK and China recently raised the number of flights allowed between the two countries to 40 returns each per week. But the UK only uses 29 of them (even fewer without Chengdu).