April 19, 2014 5:12 am JST

Spring Airlines plots high-altitude course with travel savvy

TORU SUGAWARA and TAKESHI SHIRAISHI, Nikkei staff writers

SHANGHAI/TOKYO -- Nearly a decade after founding China's first low-cost carrier, Spring Airlines Chairman Wang Zhenghua would seem to have his sights set as high as ever.

     In fact, he wants the company to vault past the competition in China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia to become No. 1 in the region.

     From an unremarkable, dimly lit headquarters in Shanghai reflecting the company's no-frills ethos, the 70-year-old Wang is planning a big push eastward. He aims to have routes connecting 20 Chinese cities with Japan in five years or so.

     Three decades of experience running a travel company tell Wang that rising incomes mean new destinations. Chinese who have been to Hong Kong, Macau, Southeast Asia and Taiwan will naturally want to visit Japan, he suggests. The chairman holds that with the allure of Mount Fuji, hot springs and shopping, the nation will grow increasingly popular among Chinese despite its higher prices.

     Wang says his company's greatest advantage lies in being an airline operated by a travel company, referring to its affiliation with Shanghai Spring International Travel Services. But while Spring Airlines may have expanded routes by scooping up demand from tourists, the end goal is winning the loyalty of more lucrative business flyers.

     When Spring Airlines began domestic service in 2005, about 70% of passengers were traveling for leisure. This category accounts for only around 20% today. The hope is that if the carrier makes a name for itself by luring vacationers with bargain fares, sooner or later more business passengers too will climb aboard, bringing fatter revenues with them.