Are you planning to fly to, from or inside of China?
China is huge, and flying is one of the best ways to see as much as possible.
But when you book your ticket, you might be surprised when you can’t find many of the airlines that you’re used to seeing back home.
China has its own airlines that fly inside and outside of the country. And despite their enormous fleets, many haven’t been around for that long.
So, here’s a little about the largest airlines in China in order of size so that you can make the best and safest choice the next time you’re traveling to China.
1. China Southern Airlines (CZ) 中国南方航空
China Southern Airlines is the largest airline in China by fleet size with more than 650 passenger aircraft.
Despite seeing a loss in 2022, the airline is still investing in new aircraft, so you can expect them to continue growing in the future. This airline has been around since 1988 and its headquarters are in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.
This makes flying into southern China really easy. Hong Kong and Shenzhen are practically next door.
China Southern Airlines is often considered to be the best of the top Chinese airlines and is certified as a 4-Star Airline for its airport, staff service, and onboard experience.
It also has a good reputation for safety, which is an important consideration when you’re considering flying to China with them.
You can fly almost anywhere with this airline, inside and outside of China. The Chinese carrier offers daily flights to more than 200 international destinations including North America, Australia, and Europe.
And, if you’re an American Airlines customer, you can earn bonus miles on some flights thanks to their partnership with China Southern.
2. China Eastern Airlines (MU) 中国东方航空
When you’re talking about the largest airlines in China, you can’t miss this one.
China Eastern Airlines is the second biggest airline in China with more than 600 passenger craft and hubs in most of China’s cities.
They were founded in 1988 and their headquarters are in Shanghai, which as you know is a big, exciting city that everyone should see at least once.
This airline is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, which includes airlines from around the world. Their routes can take you to numerous destinations within China and to more than 200 international destinations.
China Eastern Airlines is a good choice for the budget conscious. Despite its size, it’s one of China’s major low-cost airline options and flying with them may help you stretch your travel dollars further.
However, most passengers find that the actual experience of flying with this airline is often pretty average.
This is usually the case with lower cost airlines, so don’t complain if you notice that the services, food offerings, or amenities aren’t the same as other airline options.
3. Air China (CA) 中国国际航空
Air China, short for Air China Limited, completes the group of the three biggest airlines in the country with almost 500 passenger craft.
This airline was founded in 1988 in Beijing, where its headquarters are still located and is a member of the Star Alliance. It’s one of the most recognizable Chinese airlines.
Air China flies to nearly 200 destinations worldwide including the United States, Europe and the Middle East. So, it’s a great choice if you’re in the market for direct flights to or out of China.
With its main hub at Beijing Capital International Airport, this airline also has important hubs in cities like Chengdu, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Hohhot.
(Haven’t heard of Hohhot? Check out this page for more info.)
4. Hainan Airlines (HU) 海南航空
Although Hainan Airlines isn’t part of the Big Three airlines in China, it’s still the fourth biggest and a powerhouse in the aviation industry.
It’s the largest privately owned transport company in China and was founded in 1989, with main hubs in Haikou (the main city on Hainan Island), Hefei, and Beijing. There are also smaller hubs in cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dalian, and Xian.
Hainan Airlines operates more than 200 passenger planes to more than 90 destinations around the world including southeast Asia. And if you need a better reason to try out this airline, then just remember that it’s headquartered in Hainan.
Hainan is a small island off the Chinese coast that’s known for its resorts, tropical beaches and incredible marine diversity.
It’s one of the corners of China I’m yet to visit, but I’ve heard it’s an amazing place if you like sun and sand!
5. Shenzhen Airlines (ZH) 深圳航空
Shenzhen Airlines is a subsidiary of Air China and one of the few Chinese airlines that’s a member of the Star Alliance along with Air China.
It has a fleet of nearly 200 passenger planes and its headquarters are in Shenzhen, one of the most modern and tech cities in all of China.
The company was established in 1992 and has other important hubs in Nanning, Wuxi, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Nanjing.
Shenzhen Airlines is mostly focused on domestic travel, though it does have a few international routes (some are seasonal).
So, if you’re planning to use a Chinese airline to travel in or out of China, you might need to choose a different airline as the options are fairly limited.
6. Sichuan Airlines (3U) 四川航空
Established in 1986, this Chinese airline took two years to take to the sky for a flight between Chengdu and Wanzhou.
It’s now grown to the point where it has more than 190 passenger aircraft and is based in Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport in the city of Chengdu, where you can get up close to China’s iconic panda bears.
Despite the fact that most people outside of China have probably never heard of this airline, it’s the largest in western China. And it offers both domestic and international routes, though these are fairly limited.
Once owned by the provincial government, now Sichuan Airlines Co Ltd Group is the major shareholder of this airline. Shares are also held by China Southern Airlines, Air China Group, China Eastern Airlines and Chengdu Gingko Restaurant Co.
This airline has a fairly good safety record, except for a hair-raising incident in 2018 when the cockpit’s windshield suddenly blew out. The plane’s co-pilot was half sucked out of the window midflight because of the wind force.
Luckily, his seatbelt saved him, and he managed to get back into the plane, which made a safe emergency landing in Chengdu.
7. Xiamen Airlines (MF) 厦门航空
Xiamen Airlines is one of the few privately owned airlines in China. It was established in 1984 in the city of Xiamen, and has major hubs in Xiamen, Hangzhou, and Fuzhou.
There are additional hubs in cities like Tianjin, Nanchang, Changsha, Chongqing, and Quanzhou.
Xiamen Airlines is a member of the SkyTeam Alliance, which is why their focus is on a smooth, pleasant flying experience for every customer. This is important if you enjoy good customer service on your flights.
The airline also has more than 150 passenger craft in its fleet and lots of international and domestic flights for you to choose from.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Xiamen Airlines was one of the few airlines ferrying passengers to and from mainland China.
Incidentally, Xiamen is a great city to visit with nice beaches, history, and a laidback culture, so if you can make a trip to this city, then don’t hesitate!
8. Shandong Airlines (SC) 山东航空
Shandong Airlines is one of the youngest in this list and was only established in 1994.
It’s based in the city of Jinan in Shandong Province and has another major hub in the city of Qingdao. Shandong Airlines is majority owned by Air China and has a fleet of more than 130 aircraft.
Unlike some of the largest airlines in China, this airline’s network is mostly domestic, with routes to most major Chinese cities. However, it does operate a few international lines to a few Asian destinations like Singapore, Japan and Cambodia.
9. Spring Airlines (9C) 春秋航空
With more than 120 aircraft, this Chinese airline is mostly unknown outside of China.
It was one of the first privately owned airlines in China and is based in Shanghai, with hubs at both Hongqiao and Pudong airports.
This airline claims to be China’s first and North Asia’s largest low-cost carrier and may be a better choice than other low-cost options like Beijing Capital Airlines.
It’s the aviation subsidiary of the Shanghai Spring International Travel Service. It was also the first private airline in China to earn the top safety award from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).
This airline has more than 130 domestic routes to China’s biggest cities as well as more than 80 international routes to popular destinations like Tokyo, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand.
10. Tianjin Airlines (GS) 天津航空
With just over 100 passenger craft, this is the last on the list of the largest Chinese airlines.
It’s based in the city of Tianjin, the seventh largest city in the country and less than an hour from Beijing by high-speed rail.
This airline is based in Tianjin Binhai International Airport and was formerly known as Grand China Express Air. It’s mostly focused on domestic travel and has an extensive regional airline network.
Tianjin Airlines was awarded the SKYTRAX ‘Best Regional Airline in China’ and ‘World’s 4-Star Airline’ in 2011, and ‘Most Improved Airline’ by AirlineRatings in 2017.
In 2016, Tianjin Airlines launched its international service and now has more than 290 international and domestic routes to 126 cities.
Other big Chinese airlines
In case you’re wondering, I haven’t forgotten about the amazing Hong Kong based carrier, Cathay Pacific, or Taiwan-based China Airlines. My list focuses on mainland China.
An important travel tip
Are you heading to China soon?
If you want to use Wi-Fi in China, you won’t be able to survive without a virtual private network (VPN) on your phone.
The Chinese internet is censored and without a VPN you’re not going to be able to access all your favorite sites and apps like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Google, all the major news sites, and many more.
Just remember to download the VPN before you arrive as VPN sales are blocked in China.
Chinese airlines are… big!
Half the fun of traveling to China is exploring the country. And China is so huge that you really won’t see much if you don’t fly once in a while.
China’s largest airlines are sleek, modern, and convenient, and perfect for this kind of exploration. While the service can vary, you’re pretty much guaranteed a trouble-free flight that gets you from A to B.
So, don’t be afraid to pick a spot on the map and find a flight to match, because this is the best way to see and experience this incredible country!
Where to from here?
You’ll probably enjoy these related pages:
- Find out how long a flight to China is
- See the full list of Chinese airlines which includes the likes of Shanghai Airlines and Juneyao Airlines
- Look up each Chinese airline in terms of fleet size (external website).
Or, visit this page if you’re looking to book a flight to China. The Helpful Panda partners with Trip which has the most extensive range of China flights.
China travel resources at your fingertips
If you’re heading to China soon, these amazing resources will help you:
- Refer to Mike’s China packing list for a full rundown on everything that needs to get thrown in your suitcase
- Read the what to bring to China page for the most important items
- Do a crash course in Mandarin and enjoy a 20% discount here thanks to LTL
- Don’t forget your China travel insurance which is very important in China where medical costs can be high
- And, download a VPN on your phone as mentioned above.
Main image credit: News Room on Pixabay.
FAQ about the largest airlines in China
What is the main airline in China?
Air China has historically been the national flag carrier, though China Southern Airlines is now the biggest airline in the country. All the major Chinese airlines are state owned.
What are the Big 3 airlines in China?
China Southern Airlines, Chinese Eastern Airlines and Air China are collectively known as the Big Three. This is because they’re the biggest airlines in China.
What are the Big 4 airlines in China?
If you include the fourth largest airline into the top tier of Chinese airlines, it’s Hainan Airlines.
Which China airline is the best?
It’s a subjective choice, but I’d say the best airline is China Southern. Of all the China airlines, it’s great for international flights as its network is the biggest. It also has the experience serving foreign customers, it’s usually well priced, and has good connections to lots of smaller Chinese airports.