U.S.-to-China air routes fastest growing at SFO

SFO -- A booming Chinese economy has demand soaring for travel between the Bay Area, Hong Kong and mainland China.

U.S.-to-China air routes are San Francisco International Airport's fastest growing market and airlines are adding daily flights to meet the surge in passengers.

The latest carrier to do so is Cathay Pacific Airways, which on Thursday launches its second daily flight to Hong Kong.

Bay Area businesses are clamoring to establish a presence in China to take advantage of the Chinese economy's expansion, spurring the growth in air traffic.

Bustling Chinese and Asian communities around the Bay are also a big factor, as individuals increasingly visit relatives back home or take leisure trips there.

"There's a huge demand as the Chinese economy gets stronger," said Hugo Lai, director of marketing at Cathay Pacific Airways. "In the next five or 10 years, we will see more routes going to China and Asia."

There are currently a half-dozen daily flights from SFO to Hong Kong and mainland China.

United Airlines operates three of them, including flights to Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. United recently announced a new flight for next March to China's third biggest city, Guangzhou, an industrial and manufacturing hub.

Air China and Singapore Airlines also fly to Hong Kong from SFO.

The addition of Cathay's second daily to Hong Kong means more than 10,000 seatswill be available weekly on this key U.S.-to-China air route. That's an increase of more than 34 percent since 2006, according to SFO spokesman Mike McCarron.

"The China market is our fastest growing market," said McCarron.

Hong Kong continues to be a preferred location for California and U.S. companies to oversee their operations in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office in San Francisco. The group said the U.S. is Hong Kong's second largest trading partner, and California is the largest exporter to Hong Kong among the 50 states.

"It's another indication of the growing ties in trade, tourism and investment between the Bay Area and China," said Stephen Levy, economist and director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.

Levy pointed out that the Bay Area economy is growing in part because of demand in Asia for local technology products and services. In addition, the Bay Area, and the Peninsula in particular, is home to a strong venture capital industry, which invests in local technology and biotechnology companies.

"The desire is growing for Bay Area companies to have a presence in China, so they can take part in the explosive economy," said Dennis Conaghan, executive director of the San Francisco Center for Economic Development. Many companies like to use Hong Kong as a hub to oversee their operations in Asia, he said.

Cathay's Lai said the company does significant business with high-tech and biotech companies such as Oracle Corp. and Sybase. Chinese business executives also find the Bay Area a lucrative market, Lai noted.

A number of local architectural firms have set up shop in China to work on construction projects for the 2012 Olympics in China, Conaghan said.

"It's huge for our company, because it represents work all over China," said Steve Weindel, principal at Gensler, a design firm headquartered in San Francisco. "Were making the transition from being a domestic company to being a global company."

Weindel travels often to China to help his company with its building and interior projects there. Gensler has an office in Shanghai.

Anne LeClair, president and chief executive officer of the San Mateo County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said her group is pushing to attract both business and leisure travelers from China.

"We're sending materials to travel agents in Asia to familiarize them with the area," she said.

Cathay Pacific is adding an afternoon flight at SFO. Its initial launch is at 1:35 p.m. Thursday. The flight arrives at 7 p.m. Friday. The airline's other Hong Kong flight departs SFO daily at 1 a.m., and arrives the next day around 6 a.m. or 7 a.m.

Cathay Pacific's new nonstop service is geared for travelers who want to arrive in Hong Kong in the evening, so they can rest up for the next day, said Lai. The flight is about 13 hours.

The price for an economy seat ranges from $800 to

$1,200 round-trip, depending upon the day and how far in advance the flight is booked.

Current Cathay Pacific flights to Hong Kong have been averaging about 80 percent full, said Lai.

As part of the launch, Cathay Pacific is rolling out a new long-haul fleet of Boeing 777-300 aircraft.

The airline is also offering bonus miles for travelers -- up to 15,000 miles for first-class travel -- on the new flight.