Asiana currently operates four daily nonstop flights between Los Angeles International Airport and South Korea, but it hopes to add more before the Beijing Olympics. Asiana is a partner in the Star Alliance Lounge, above, at LAX. - Los Angeles Times

Flying high on the Olympics

With the Beijing Olympics less than a year away, major international airlines have been spiffing up their planes and scrambling to be the carrier of choice for passengers flying to China, the world's fastest-growing market.

But amid the fracas, a little-known airline is putting up a feisty fight against carriers twice its size.

Asiana Airlines, better known to the Korean community as the "other" Korean carrier, flies to more cities in China than any other airline and has been parlaying the network to draw more U.S. passengers traveling to that country.

It is looking to be the airline that introduces other cities in China to travelers who will be visiting for the first time to attend the Beijing Olympics.

At Los Angeles International Airport, Asiana is enticing U.S. business travelers with a 15,000-square foot lounge it shares with its Star Alliance airline partners. The lounge, complete with showers, bars, plush armchairs and food buffet, over looks the airport tarmac and is open to its first- and business-class passengers.

"In terms of China, we are the market leader," said Kang Joo-an, president of Asiana. "Though competition is fierce, we believe we have the most convenient network and best service to China."

Demand for flying from the U.S. to China is "explosive," Kang said. But American carriers fly only to major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai because China restricts the number of nonstop direct flights from the U.S. So flying anywhere else in China requires a stopover and getting on a domestic carrier, where service is uneven at best.

Kang says U.S. passengers flying on Asiana can stop over in South Korea's Incheon International Airport and transfer to any of the 20 cities in China it serves. The flights are frequent — four flights daily to Shanghai for instance, he said.

Asiana isn't alone in targeting China and is facing competition from some of the world's largest airlines with purse strings to match.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways recently acquired Dragonair, a regional carrier in Asia that flies to more than a dozen cities in China. Until the $1 billion purchase, Cathay Pacific operated just two passenger routes to the mainland.

"We want to be the gateway to China," said Alan K.L. Wong, Cathay Pacific's senior vice president for the Americas. "Hong Kong is right at the center of Asia."

Asiana's archrival Korean Air also has plans to add 12 routes in China next year and make China its "second home market." Meanwhile, U.S. carriers have been adding a limited number of direct nonstop flights under a new U.S.-China trade agreement.

Kang said the airline is not fazed. It has faced far greater challenges before.

When Asiana started in 1988 with one airplane and began flying short hops to cities within South Korea, Korean Air did all it could to put Asiana out of business.

Korean Air, the country's flagship carrier, would match every new Asiana flight with not just one but two and sometimes three flights for the same route. Whenever Asiana lowered fares, Korean Air would lower its tickets even more.

"Their basic policy was to make us disappear," Kang said, recalling how Korean Air pressured travel agents to avoid booking passengers on Asiana. "It was not easy for us."

To survive, the fledgling airline began in 1994 focusing on a market that few other airlines in Asia including Korean Air seemed to be paying much attention to.

Unfettered by cutthroat competition, it quietly began adding flights across China, becoming more than a decade later the airline with the largest network there.

As it focused on China, the airline also stressed service on flights as a way to distinguish itself from its larger competitors.

Asiana is about half the size of Korean Air. It has 63 aircraft and flies to 63 cities in 17 countries. Korean Air has 123 aircraft and flies to 114 cities in 37 countries.

For the third year in a row, in a survey of business travelers, Asiana was chosen as having the best onboard service and flight attendants in the world, beating out long time behemoths Singapore Airlines and British Airways . It is also one of only five airlines with the highest five-star rating from an independent rating outfit , SkyTrax.

The attention to detail is visible at its crew training facility just outside Seoul, South Korea, where flight attendants spend hours learning how to walk "gracefully" in a ballet studio with floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

In the latest of novel moves for the industry, Asiana later this month will begin exchanging flight attendants with Japan's All Nippon Airways. Passengers on Asiana flights from Seoul to Tokyo will find a Japanese flight attendant from ANA, which will have a Korean flight attendant from Asiana on its flights.

The airline said the exchange program will help improve the experience of their Korean and Japanese passengers who'll be met by crew members who not only can speak the language but understand their cultural differences.

It is one of several services offered by the airline that has been catching the attention of international business travelers. Chefs prepare meals on board for first-class passengers on some flights from Los Angeles and Seoul. First- and business-class passengers also get free chauffeured limousine service in Seoul.

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