TRANSPORTATION; Airline pulls out all the chocks; Little-known Asiana seeks to use its extensive network into China to become the carrier of choice for Olympics attendees.

With the Beijing Olympics less than a year away, major international airlines have been spiffing up their planes and scrambling to become the carrier of choice for people flying to China, the world's fastest-growing air travel market.

But amid the fracas, a little-known airline is putting up a feisty fight against carriers twice its size.

Asiana Airlines, better known in Los Angeles' sizable Korean community as the other South Korean carrier, flies to more cities in China than any other airline and has been using its network to draw more U.S. passengers traveling to that country.

It is looking to be the airline that introduces other Chinese destinations to people who will be visiting that country for the first time to attend the Beijing Games.

At Los Angeles International Airport, Asiana is enticing U.S. business travelers with a new 15,000-square-foot lounge it is sharing with its Star Alliance airline partners. The lounge, complete with showers, bars, plush armchairs and a food buffet, is open to Asiana's first- and business-class passengers.

"In terms of China, we are the market leader," said Kang Joo-an, president of Asiana. "Though competition is fierce, we believe we have the most-convenient network and best service to China."

Demand for flying from the U.S. to China is "explosive," Kang said. But American carriers fly only to major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai because China restricts the number of nonstop flights from the U.S. So flying anywhere else in China requires a stopover and transferring to a Chinese domestic carrier, where service is uneven at best.

Kang says U.S. passengers flying on Asiana can make a stopover at South Korea's Incheon International Airport, then catch another flight to any of the 20 cities in China it serves. The flights are frequent, he said, giving the example of four daily flights to Shanghai.

Asiana currently operates four daily nonstops between LAX and Incheon but is looking to add more flights before the Beijing Olympics kick off in August.

But Asiana is not alone in targeting China. It faces stiff competition from some of the world's largest airlines -- which have the financial resources to match.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways recently acquired Dragonair, a regional carrier in Asia that serves more than a dozen cities in China. Before completing the $1-billion Dragonair deal, Cathay Pacific operated just two passenger routes to the mainland.

"We want to be the gateway to China," said Alan K.L. Wong, Cathay Pacific's senior vice president for the Americas. "Hong Kong is right at the center of Asia."

Asiana archrival Korean Air also has expansion plans: It will add 12 routes to China next year, making China its "second home market."

Meanwhile, U.S. carriers have been adding a limited number of nonstops under a new U.S.-China trade agreement.

Asiana is about half the size of Korean Air: It has 63 aircraft and flies to 63 cities in 17 countries, whereas Korean Air has 123 aircraft and flies to 114 cities in 37 countries.

Kang said Asiana was unfazed by the challenges, having faced far greater ones before.

When it started in 1988 with a single plane flying short hops to cities within South Korea, much larger and well-established Korean Air did all it could to drive upstart Asiana out of business.

Korean Air, the country's flagship carrier, would match every new Asiana flight with not just one but two and sometimes three flights on the same route. Whenever Asiana lowered fares, Korean Air would lower its prices even more.

"Their basic policy was to make us disappear," Kang said, recalling how Korean Air pressured travel agents to avoid booking passengers on Asiana. "It was not easy for us."

To survive, the fledgling airline began in 1994 to focus on China, a market that few other airlines in Asia, Korean Air included, seemed to be paying much attention to.

Unfettered by cutthroat competition, it quietly began adding flights to cities throughout China. A decade later, its flight network was the most extensive of any foreign airline operating there.

As it focused on China, the airline also stressed service as a way to distinguish itself from larger competitors.

For the third year in a row, Asiana was picked as having the best onboard service and flight attendants in the world, beating out legacy behemoths Singapore Airlines and British Airways, in a survey of business travelers. It also is one of only five airlines in the world with the highest five-star rating from an independent rating firm, SkyTrax.

The attention to detail is visible at its crew training facility just outside Seoul where would-be flight attendants spend hours learning how to walk gracefully in a ballet studio with floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

In the latest of novel moves for the industry, Asiana will later this month begin exchanging flight attendants with Japan's All Nippon Airways.

Passengers on Asiana flights between Seoul and Tokyo will find a Japanese flight attendant from ANA, which will have a Korean flight attendant from Asiana on its flights.

The airlines said the exchange program would help improve the experience of Korean and Japanese passengers who'll be met by crew members who can not only speak their language but understand cultural differences.

It is one of several services offered by the airline that has been catching the attention of international business travelers. Onboard chefs prepare meals for first-class passengers on some flights between Los Angeles and Seoul. First- and business-class passengers also get free chauffeured limousine service in Seoul.

"They've been kind of under the radar," said Chris McGinnis, editor of a travel newsletter for Expedia.com. "My friends recently tried them and liked them."

peter.pae@latimes.com


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