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China’s First Private Airline: A Look At Okay Airways

Created by a group of Beijing and Shanghai investors in 2004 following the Chinese government’s decision to allow non-state-owned airlines, Okay Airways became the first privately owned Chinese airline. In the early 2000s, the airline industry in China was dominated by three big state-owned carriers: Air China, China Southern Airlines, and China Eastern Airlines.

The problem was that the big three had global ambitions rather than expanding into domestic areas. They did not see domestic destinations as being as lucrative as their flagship international routes. Also, at the time, the Chinese government was investing in the country’s infrastructure by building new airports.

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The central government floated a new idea rather than relying on the big three to serve these new airports from their hubs in Beijing and Shanghai. In line with its policy of giving the provinces and autonomous regions more control, China decided it would allow private airlines if they met specific criteria.

All you needed was funding and three aircraft

If a prospective airline could raise the money and have a fleet with a minimum of three aircraft, the Chinese government would grant it an operator’s license. On top of this, they would allow foreigners to own up to 25% of the new airline. Seeing the potential for an airline based at Tianjin Binhai International Airport (TSN), a group of investors raised $36.14 million. Located 75 miles southeast of central Beijing, Tianjin is a major port and air cargo center.


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Okay Airlines is based in the Chinese city of Tianjin. Photo: Boeing

Okay Airways received its license as a public aviation carrier from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) on February 27, 2005. Okay Airways became China’s first privately owned airline operating its first flight on March 11, 2005, flying a Boeing 737-900 with 81 passengers between Tianjin and Kunming Changshui International Airport (KMG). Located in the mountainous Yunnan province, Kunming is a popular Chinese tourist destination.

According to the aviation data and statistics website, ch-aviation, Okay Airways’ current fleet is made up of the following 25 aircraft:

  • 2 x Boeing 737 MAX 8
  • 19 x Boeing 737-800s
  • 6 x Boeing 737 MAX 9ERs

Okay Airlines to be the joint launch customer of the Xian MA700

In 2014 Okay Airways announced that together with JoyAir that it would be the launch customer for the Xian MA700 twin-engine, medium-range turboprop airliner. Having made its maiden flight in 2017, the Xian MA700 is being built to compete with the ATR72 and the Bombardier Dash 8-400. There is no firm date about when the first aircraft will be delivered after Canada revoked export permits related to the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW150C engine. Historically Okay Airways operated 13 Xian MA-60, a Chinese-built STOL plane based on the Antonov An-24, and retired the entire fleet of its turboprops on October 25, 2016.


Looking to the future

On January 30, 2015, Okay Airways became the first Chinese airline to take delivery of a Boeing 737-900 Configured in a single class layout with 200 seats, Okay Airways placed the jet on the following domestic routes from its hub at Tianjin Binhai International Airport (TSN):

  • Kunming Changshui International Airport (KMG)
  • Changsha Huanghua International Airport (CSX)
  • Zhangjiajie Hehua International Airport (DYG)
  • Guilin Liangjiang International Airport (KWL)
  • Hohhot Baita International Airport (HET)
  • Taiyuan Wusu International Airport (TYN)
  • Harbin Taiping International Airport (HRB)

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Okay Airways will be one of the Boeing 737 MAX 10s launch airlines. Photo: Boeing

At the 2017 Paris Air Show, Okay Airways announced it had placed an order with Boeing for eight 737 MAX 10s and seven 737 MAX 8s. With this order, Okay Airways will become one of the launch customers of the 737 MAX 10 when it gets delivered in 2023. The Boeing 737 MAX 10 is the largest of the MAX family of aircraft and can carry up to 230 passengers. Also at the Paris Air Show, Okay Airways signed a memorandum of understanding for five 787-9 Dreamliners.

Currently, Okay Airways offers international flights to Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. When the Dreamliners arrive, Okay Airways plans to use them to expand further into the long-haul market as it looks to grow the airline.


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