Air China’s inaugural nonstop flight from Beijing soared into Houston Thursday afternoon, the airline’s first such route into the U.S. in 30 years.
More than 300 passengers on the nearly 14-hour flight included Houston’s consul general of China, Xu Erwen, and former Rockets star Yao Ming.
Yao spoke briefly to the crowd and said it would have been nice to have the flight with no layovers or connections when he arrived in Houston 10 years ago.
“I might have played a little longer,” he joked.
The travelers were greeted by applause and a Bush Intercontinental Airport terminal adorned with Chinese lanterns. Chinese food and tea were served, and two musicians played traditional Chinese instruments, the guzheng and pipa, as guests from the Chinese community and officials from both airlines waited for the 3:30 flight to arrive.
Air China will now offer the nonstop flight between Beijing and Houston four days a week.
After the plane landed, elaborately costumed dragon dancers performed, and city and airport leaders spoke to the crowd about how their dreams and years-long plans were coming to fruition. All speeches were translated into Chinese.
Passenger Jian Zhao said there also were ceremonies on the plane, and everyone was invited to play riddle games.
Zhao showed a souvenir given to all inaugural passengers, a bronze badge imprinted with a plane taking off and the flight date.
Mario Diaz, Houston Airport System executive director, said Houston’s effort to attract more international flights would not be as strong without the nonstop Beijing route.
“We have met a goal connecting two of the most vibrant cities in the world,” Diaz said. “This will have a significant impact on both cities for years to come.”
He said the flight connects 26 million people. The Houston Airport System has estimated that the economic impact here would be about $100 million each year.
Mayor Annise Parker said the flight would bring cultural, business and educational opportunities to add to Houston’s already growing connection to China.
Both Parker and Erwen called the flight a dream come true. More than 500 Houston companies report doing business in China, and total trade between Houston and China has been growing briskly since 2000.
“Houston has one of the most dynamic economies in the United States, and it will be important to link our economy to the strongest in the world,” Parker said during the ceremony. “The new link will strengthen an already strong connection.”
Since 1982, Air China has flown nonstop to only three U.S. cities – New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco – from its main hub in Beijing. Only seven U.S. cities currently offer nonstop flights to the Chinese capital. An airline leader said Houston was not always the most obvious choice, but its business travelers and diversity helped it move up on the list.
Another factor was Yao, a Shanghai native who spent his NBA career with the Rockets.
On Thursday, he said the two cities have much culture to exchange. He likened the experience of stepping off the plane to what he felt upon his arrival here a decade earlier.
“I felt very emotional,” he said.
Bin Zhang, a research scholar at the Texas Medical Center, gave a long hug to his parents when they arrived from Beijing.
“I worry less about them this time because they don’t need to make transitions,” he said.