China Eastern Will Fly Nonstop To Pittsburgh… Once

Filed Under: China Eastern

Update: As it turns out, China Eastern is operating two roundtrip flights from Shanghai to Pittsburgh, on August 3 & August 11.

We’re seeing a ton of growth from Chinese airlines, and generally speaking that comes in the form of more routes between large international hubs and smaller markets in China (for example, you can now fly nonstop from LAX to a dozen cities in China). Chinese airlines are still adding routes to more cities in the US, though I think most people wouldn’t expect Pittsburgh to be one the next cities to get service. Well, it’s happening… sort of.

China Eastern has announced that they’ll operate a charter flight between Shanghai and Pittsburgh, with one flight in each direction. Specifically, they’ll operate on the following dates:

  • Pittsburgh to Shanghai on August 3, 2018
  • Shanghai to Pittsburgh on August 11, 2018

The flight will be operated by a Boeing 777-300ER featuring 316 seats, including six first class suites, 52 business class seats, and 258 economy seats.

China Eastern 777 first class

No, this isn’t a travel agency chartering an Etihad A380, but rather the hope is that the general public wants to take this flight. Tickets on the flight are available for $1,098 roundtrip in economy, $2,980 roundtrip in business class, and $5,680 roundtrip in first class. Since this is a charter flight you can’t book directly through China Eastern, but rather have to book through a travel agency.

The way this flight is being marketed is a bit over-the-top, in my opinion. They describe this as “seasonal charter services,” and suggest the route is “commencing” on August 3, when in reality there will only be one frequency in each direction.

Purely from a direct profit perspective, these flights don’t make sense:

  • Generally operating one-off charter flights isn’t great for aircraft utilization, so that will be costly
  • They’ll have to position the plane to/from Pittsburgh, since the airline doesn’t otherwise fly there, which adds even more to the cost
  • There are many one-stop options between Pittsburgh and just about any major city in China that are significantly cheaper in all cabins, so this isn’t for anyone looking to score a deal
  • Operating just one flight in each direction greatly limits flexibility, since those originating in the US can only stay for exactly a week, and those originating in China can only take this flight in one direction

China Eastern 777 business class

So why on earth would the airline operate this flight? It actually sort of, kind of, makes sense in a twisted way, though I think the incentives are a bit backwards here.

My first thought was that this is logical enough as a partnership between China and Pittsburgh — this flight will get some media attention, and it will look good for both China and Pittsburgh that they have tourists traveling nonstop between the two places — more Americans would be visiting China from Pittsburgh, and maybe a few Chinese visitors would come to Pittsburgh (since the flight seems like it’s centered around Americans based on the schedule).

However, this flight is apparently a partnership agreement between Pittsburgh International Airport, VisitPITTSBURGH, and Idea Foundry, and they’re excited that Pittsburgh will be the arriving and departing gateway for hundreds of Chinese tourists who will visit the US East Coast this summer:

“This is a fantastic opportunity for our region to become the first medium-size city in the country as a destination for Chinese tourists,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. “Our region’s businesses, the airport, and our tourism industry will be the primary beneficiary of this agreement.”

“This is huge step forward for the future, particularly for nonstop air service to China. The charter-to-scheduled service model has been successfully adopted in other parts of the world,” said Christina Cassotis, Pittsburgh International Airport CEO. “We are the first U.S. market to tap into China’s fast-growing tourism market with this type of business model.”

VisitPITTSBURGH will work with tour companies in China to book Chinese tourists at Pittsburgh’s hotels, restaurants, and attractions. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me:

  • If the goal is to attract Chinese tourists, shouldn’t the flight from Shanghai to Pittsburgh be before the flight from Pittsburgh to Shanghai? The way the flights are scheduled, this seems more targeted at American tourists.
  • While it’s true that in the past we’ve seen some charter flights lead to scheduled commercial flights, this is a real stretch. Offering a single charter flights between two cities as a marketing campaign is unlikely to put Pittsburgh at the top of the list of cities for Chinese airlines to expand to.

China Eastern 777

Bottom line

Pittsburgh has been trying to grow their longhaul flights, and they’ve had some luck, as they’ve attracted Condor and WOW Air. This is a decent enough attempt at a marketing campaign, especially with different Pittsburgh organizations presumably chipping in to subsidize these flights. However, I think it’s quite farfetched to suggest that this will move the needle in terms of interest from Chinese airlines to move to Pittsburgh.

What do you make of China Eastern operating a single roundtrip flight between Pittsburgh and Shanghai?

  1. The Chinese coming to CMU and taking the knowledge back while the dumb Americans sell trinkets, beer and fight amongst themselves about grabbing pussies and polluting air.

  2. Woo we get to have a once in a lifetime opportunity to enjoy a smoke filled cabin to Shanghai. I’m so excited.

  3. Definitely ageeed overall. One thought on Chinese tourists is they may be expecting people to fly in to Pittsburgh and then out of say JFK (also with China Eastern). So many Chinese tourists make “whistle stop” trips through the NE / US as a whole that multi-destination flights make sense

  4. As someone who is obsessed with strange routes, I am wagering once this news sinks in your temptations will kick in.

    Looking forward to the trip report.

  5. “They’ll have to position the plane to/from Pittsburgh, since the airline doesn’t otherwise fly there, which adds even more to the cost”

    Why do you say that? It will fly PVG-PIT with US bound Chinese tourists. That’s kind of the point. It will then turn around and fly PIT-PVG with Shanghai bound tourists. It will make the round trip again a week later to bring everyone home.

  6. There is the possibility that they’re also marketing a CAN-PIT round trip to the local CAN market. That would allow for full utilization of the flights.

  7. @ Matt — My understanding isn’t that they’re operating two roundtrips, but rather one roundtrip — one flight from Pittsburgh to Shanghai on August 3, and one flight from Shanghai to Pittsburgh on August 11. There’s nothing indicating that they’re offering two roundtrips, unless I’m missing something.

  8. “They’ll have to position the plane to/from Pittsburgh, since the airline doesn’t otherwise fly there, which adds even more to the cost”

    Why do you say that? It will fly PVG-PIT with US bound Chinese tourists. That’s kind of the point. It will then turn around and fly PIT-PVG with Shanghai bound tourists. It will make the round trip again a week later to bring everyone home.

  9. @ Lucky .. just some research in the local Pittsburgh media:

    “China Eastern will operate two flights this year from Pittsburgh to Shanghai. The first will be Aug. 3 and the second Aug. 11. The airline will use a 316-seat Boeing 777 for the trips.”

    “Under a plan agreed to in April 2017, Caissa will bring tourists from China to Pittsburgh. It also will sell tickets in the Pittsburgh region for travelers interested in flying to the country on the return trip.

    Visit Pittsburgh is expected to work with Caissa to help bring Chinese tourists here. “

  10. Chinese tourists almost always do an open jaw for these trips, so it actually make sense to fly one-off. Most of them fly into BOS and out of NYC or WAS, PIT can be a good place to start/end those tours. When I was young I did a trip like that, flew PVG-LAX, LAX-BWI, JFK-DTW-PVG, and almost nobody does a simple PVG-LAX roundtrip.

  11. This source says 2 round trip flights. Which indicates they’ll carry passengers both ways. I actually know some of the organizers who are working with the tour operator. They told me the primary goal is to bring Chinese tourists- the flight in omtge 3rd will have Chinese tourists on it. It will not be a positioning flight to simply pick up people in Pittsburgh. As others have stated, many Chinese tourists do multiple stops on a trip, so even those who come on a second flight will be placed on another China eastern flight back to China from another North American city, as part of the tour package they will have bought.

  12. This link says two round trip flights.

    I know the organizers of this who worked with the Chinese tour company. It’s mostky for Chinese who will be on the inbound both flights. The tour company will sell them trips that include into and out of Pittsburgh, or into Pittsburgh/ out of another North American city that China eastern flies to. So, the flight is not a positioning flight on the first day to pick up people in Pittsburgh. It’ll be full of Chinese tourists arriving. That’s what roubdtup means. Suggest altering your article.

  13. With the US now apparently intent on starting a trade war with, among others, China, this seems like an odd time to be trying to encourage increased tourism.

  14. It’s two round trips. Read more carefully. I know the people at PIT who negotiated this with the Chinese travel agency. It’s primarily for inbound Chinese tourists doing, as others mentioned, a round robin/ open jaw ticket. The first flight on August 3 will be inbound from shanghai filled with Chinese tourists. It’ll pick up Pittsburgh area tourists on the return.

  15. I’m so excited, I just booked my ticket with Michelle. Anyone have any ideas how I can position to PIT for this deal?

  16. Interesting as the first leg of departs from PIT rather than PVG. I guess instead flying an empty plan to PIT, MU would make their ORD or JFK flight stop at PIT to pick up passengers?

  17. I’d be interested in flying JFK/ORD-PIT on a China Eastern 777 if there was an opprotunity.

    I’m also excited with strange routes. Not too long ago, I thought it was so cool KEF was becoming more popular, and now with what Icelandair and WOW! have done, I can fly DTW-KEF – something I thought would never happen.

  18. Wouldn’t be surprised if these flights are full. There’s billions of people in China. We’re talking about a country where a small city is 5 million people. 316 seats on a plane is chump change.

  19. What Jason said.

    I think Lucky’s confusion stems from the fact that the US tour company is only advertising one half of the legs, as may be expected, for US customers.

    I’d also expect that the demand here is going to be higher from the Chinese side. They wouldn’t have chartered a 777 otherwise.

  20. According to chinese media, there will be two round trips. In addition to the one listed here, there is one departing PVG on 8/3 12:00 and arriving PIT 8/3 15:30 and departing PIT 8/11 17:30 and arriving PVG 8/12 19:15. Round trip including first night hotel at PIT and a welcome dinner is priced at 7,600RMB (Economy) and 22,600RMB (Business). Interestingly enough, there is no price listed for F.

  21. I live in Pittsburgh in a neighborhood adjacent to CMU and Pitt. The growing Chinese population at CMU particularly has resulted in more and more Chinese non-students living here and starting businesses that cater to Chinese students – grocery stores, hair salons, numerous restaurants.

    Pittsburgh has a lot to do and see. I’m meeting more and more tourists around town. Granted, I’ve only met Americans and Canadians.

    Most people don’t realize that Pittsburgh is within a 500-mile radius of 50% of the U.S. population – New York, Chicago, Washington, Philly, Baltimore. It is easy to get almost anywhere in the Eastern U.S. from here on a 1 hour flight or < 6-hour drive. I can see Chinese tour groups seeing the sites in Pgh. Afterwards, hop on a bus to Fallingwater in the AM, tour the house/grounds and be in D.C. for dinner.

    I'm not surprised that they are giving this a shot. I think it is a brilliant way to figure out if it can be a go or not long term.

  22. They’ve been trying to get this flight off the ground for a couple years now. I think that these two round trips will be a tester for a regularly scheduled seasonal flight next year to cooperate with Pitt and CMU move in and out dates. There are tons of Chinese students and professors at these schools, and I know of a few professors who frequently fly to China who were really looking forward to this flight coming to PIT.

  23. @Mitch – where are you positioning from? I live in Pgh and have to position out most of the time. I might be able to help.

  24. Just so you know… Pittsburgh has A LOT of chinese students studying at nearby universities. This route can make sense if it was seasonal and during that time, a lot of students will be going back to school.

    Even tho this sounds like a strange route, this is purely a profitable route for many chinese families that want to visit their kids in school or is traveling to go back to school. So to me this is not a surprise move. Im surprised this was not done earlier but I guess there are more and more kids coming from China to attend US universities.

    I definitely dont see this as a daily or 3x weekly route. It will be more of a seasonal, which is my assumption.

  25. The Pittsburgh Gazette is also reporting that these flights are subsidized by Pittsburgh: $560,000 from the Port Authority of Pittsburgh, $300,000 from VisitPittsbugh tourism agency, and $50,000 from the Idea Foundry, a startup incubator.

    As Lucky pointed out Pittsburgh, which recently got $1.1 Billion to shrink the size of their airport, has been courting international airlines with cash: $800,000 over two years for Wow to fly in and out three times a week, and $500,000 for Condor over two years for flights to Frankfurt. It’s also paying Alaska Airlines $500,000 over two years for nonstop service to Seattle.

  26. @Dee, DC. Obviously could drive (easier drive than to JFK), but thought maybe there was a good positioning flight in for cheap…

  27. I would not take this particular flight due to the cost and necessity of repositioning but I will fly Chinese any time. I recently flew Air Canada from Toronto to Beijing on a 777. Earlier in the year I flew Air China from SFO to HK on a new 747/800. Air China had better leg room and better overall service at a lower cost.

  28. There already are non-stop Delta flights from DTW to Beijing and Shanghai, makes little sense to add one in Pitt when you can take the flagship A350 out of DTW, or take a different flight from Philly.

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