China and Panama City are now connected through Air China via Houston. Air China opened up its first fifth freedom route from the United States to Panama, an addition to its five-times-weekly flight from Beijing to Houston. Despite flying to Houston throughout the week, the flight to Panama will only operate two days a week on Friday and Sunday.
The flight will be served by Air China’s Boeing 777-300ER aircraft just 2 hours and 30 minutes after it makes its near 14-hour trek from Beijing to Houston as CA885, giving onward passengers ample time to clear U.S. customs and re-board. The crew will also be changed during the stop in Houston, meaning that the aircraft will fly to and from Panama with a different crew and then an additional different crew to fly the airplane back to China that night from Houston.
While typically the aircraft would rest in Houston for 17 hours from its 8:20 a.m. arrival to its 1:00 a.m. departure back to Beijing, it will now spend its day flying between Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport, a 9-hour and 25-minute trip. The short trip is a testament to the saying that aircraft do not make money sitting on the ground.
The Houston to Panama leg of the trip will keep the flight number CA885 and depart Houston at 10:50 a.m. and arrive in Panama at 2:30 p.m. after a 3-hour and 45-minute flight across the Gulf of Mexico. The return flight will then bear the flight number of Air China’s usual Houston-Beijing flight, CA886, departing Panama City at 4:30 p.m. and arrive back in Houston at 8:15 p.m. after a 3-hour and 20-minute flight, giving the aircraft around 5 hours to rest before the long journey back to China.
On the route, Air China will be complementing its Star Alliance partner United Airlines, which operates twice-daily service between Houston, its hub for Latin American flights, and Panama’s capital city, including a morning flight similar to Air China’s offering. United operates the service using its Boeing 737 aircraft, giving Air China the advantage in the eyes of aviation enthusiasts looking to fly on a 777-300ER over a single-aisle 737. Air China’s 777-300ERs feature a three-class configuration with first, business, and economy cabins.
United’s flights with the 737 are scheduled for 4 hours and 10 minutes, while Air China’s flight with the 777-300ER are scheduled for 3-hours and 40-minutes, giving Air China the time advantage as well. Air China also wins in terms of entertainment with on-demand video, while United only offers its streaming service and paid DirecTV service on some flights.
A peculiarity to say the least, as Panama is an unlikely destination for a Chinese airline. However, the move comes a year after Panama severed diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan, in favor of the larger People’s Republic of China, or China. The two countries have already signed 19 deals together, including one to investigate a possible Free Trade Agreement.
The flight is a gesture of goodwill from China as it further entices the Central American country which houses the vital Panama Canal, a key shipping route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Chinese companies have already begun investing in Panama, with one company investing $165 million in a Panamanian cruise ship port, according to Reuters.
As for Air China, this is its third Latin American fifth freedom flight. Currently, the Chinese flag-carrier operates flights to Havana, Cuba and Sao Paulo, Brazil via a third country. Flights to Havana make a stop in Montreal, Canada, most likely to avoid the hassle and scrutiny of U.S. customs for a flight to Cuba, and flights to Sao Paulo make a stop in Madrid, Spain.
While flights to Panama are just starting, Air China’s foray into Latin America is maturing.