How China’s ‘Big Three’ Airlines Came to Be

Here is a simple explanation of the beginnings of the three major airlines of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – Air China, China Eastern and China Southern. These three airlines were born out of the breakup of the monopoly of the People’s Aviation Company of China as a subsidiary of the Civil Aviation Administration of China. The People’s Aviation Company of China was better known as CAAC Airlines and was divided into regions of the PRC.

Breakup of CAAC Airlines

According to CAAC Airlines’ Simple Flying story, CAAC Airlines operated as a communist PRC monopoly on commercial aviation, connecting the PRC to communist nations and the West. Moreover, according to Thuong T.’s report “Reforming China’s Airline Industry: From State-Owned Monopoly to Market Dynamism” in Transportation Journal, the PRC decided between 1985 and 1987 to begin reducing the role of the Administration of civil aviation to one of aviation administration and regulation only rather than also having a commercial arm. CAAC Airlines would be divided into commercial entities by region to help the PRC replace the communist model of providing commercial aviation with a free enterprise model.


These six business entities would include Air China, China Eastern and China Southern – the PRC’s “big three” handle about half of China’s air traffic. Then there were China Northern, China Northwest and China Southwest – these three airlines would merge to form the “Big Three”.

It should also be noted that CAAC Airlines was originally intended to serve the PRC government and not to provide access to the average citizen or tourists. However, the PRC eventually found it useful to give its citizens the freedom to travel as part of the transition to a free market economy.

Air China

Air China is one of the last airlines to fly the Boeing 747 in passenger capacity, this one being an Intercontinental 747-8i.

Photo: Joe Kunzler | single flight

Air China was born on July 1, 1988, as a division of CAAC Airlines. Air China aimed to keep the PRC connected with the world, supporting CAAC Airlines long-haul routes and long-haul aircraft. Air China became the flag carrier of the PRC; the airline is responsible for transporting PRC leaders around the world.

Air China also acquired China Southwest Airlines in 2002. In 2007, Air China joined Star Alliance – ten years after the birth of the world’s largest airline alliance – allowing code sharing, networking and the sharing of operational facilities and personnel with other Airlines companies. Today, Air China is the main airline in the PRC and has an air cargo subsidiary.

Air China is also a rarity in that it flies to all six habitable continents of the world with a diverse fleet of aircraft. Simple Flying has also written a guide to the history of Air China.

eastern china

China Eastern operates among other aircraft, the Boeing 777-300ER pictured here.

Photo: Joe Kunzler | single flight

China Eastern was also born from the same division as CAAC Airlines on June 25, 1988. China Eastern is based in Shanghai and merged with China Northwest Airlines and Shanghai Airlines. Also, China Eastern joined the SkyTeam airline alliance on June 21, 2011. Simple Flying made a more detailed history of China Eastern Airlines earlier this year.

South China

China Southern Airlines is the only airline in the PRC to operate the Airbus A380.

Photo: Visual China Group via Getty Images

China Southern Airlines was born on July 1, 1988, with its headquarters in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. China Southern Airlines is the only airline in the PRC to operate the Airbus A380, but intends to retire the airframe by the end of 2022.

China Southern Airlines was also a member of SkyTeam Alliance from 2004 to 2018. Nevertheless, China Southern Airlines engages in codesharing and offers domestic and international flights. Simple Flying also has a long history of China Southern Airlines.

Then there is Hainan Airlines

A Hainan Airlines 787 on final approach to Seattle-Tacoma International

Photo: Joe Kunzler | single flight

Although Hainan Airlines is not a member of the PRC Big Three, Hainan Airlines is a major PRC-based airline that deserves an honorable mention here. Hainan Airlines was born in October 1989 as Hainan Provincial Airlines and funded by the Hainan government and institutional shareholders. Later renamed Hainan Airlines in 1996, and shareholding was transferred to HNA Group when it was established in 2000. Its distinctive red and yellow jets can be seen throughout.

Do you think the dissolution of CAAC Airlines was a good thing? Let us know in the comments.

Sources: transport log,