Num­ber cruncher leads string of avi­a­tion firsts

China Daily (Canada) - - HONG KONG - By EMMA DAI in Hong Kong em­madai@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

Be­fore join­ing the avi­a­tion in­dus­try and fly­ing all over the world, Wal­ter Dias, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for Greater China and Korea at United Air­lines Inc, used to be an ac­coun­tant. He was once a mem­ber of Pricewater­house, even be­fore Coopers joined the Big Four au­dit firm.

How­ever, the city boy who grew up out­side New York found life in the of­fice too bor­ing any­way and de­cided to “see the world”. He first joined the oil busi­ness in the 1980s, which sent him to “cool places that one wouldn’t go for va­ca­tion”. “I was in Su­dan dur­ing the civil war,” he re­called.

In 1987, Dias joined Con­ti­nen­tal Air­lines, where his duty was to visit dif­fer­ent di­vi­sions of the car­rier and find out bet­ter pro­cesses to do the job. “I ac­cepted the of­fer be­cause it’s a great way to understand how things work,” he said.

This have-a-go spirit led him to open the com­pany’s first Hong Kong of­fice in 2001, when the car­rier launched the world’s first non­stop flight be­tween Hong Kong and New York. It was the long­est com­mer­cial flight at that time — last­ing about 16 hours — and the first to fly over the North Pole.

“It was an ex­cit­ing time,” Dias told China Daily. “It took us a good two years to pre­pare. No one had op­er­ated a com­mer­cial flight that long. And it was also the first try to ne­go­ti­ate for fly-over rights from both Rus­sia and China.”

Back then, Dias was su­per­vis­ing the sales team of Con­ti­nen­tal Mi­crone­sia, a wholly owned sub­sidiary of the US air­line. The re­gional car­rier, cov­er­ing mar­kets from South Korea to South­east Asia and Aus­tralia, was head­quar­tered in Guam, the strate­gic is­land in the western Pa­cific Ocean.

In 2005, when the Chi­nese main­land mar­ket fi­nally opened up to for­eign air­lines un­der a World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion agree­ment, Dias set up Con­ti­nen­tal’s first of­fice in Beijing and a lo­cal team to sup­port daily non­stop ser­vice be­tween the Chi­nese cap­i­tal and New York. The flight was its first direct Sino-US ser­vice since the sign­ing of the WTO deal and was fol­lowed by a non­stop trans-Pa­cific ser­vice be­tween Shang­hai and New York four years later.

In 2008, Dias wrapped up 15 years of life in Guam and re­lo­cated to Hong Kong to “be closer to the cus­tomers”. In 2010, Con­ti­nen­tal Air­lines

The ser­vice is sched­uled as a thrice-weekly sea­sonal ser­vice from May 8 to Oct 27 next year.

“Xi’an is a bit dif­fer­ent from Chengdu,” Dias said. “We be­lieve (the prospect of a) cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence would be at­trac­tive to US tourists. While the US cor­po­rate client base is not as strong, many lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ers are reach­ing out. But we want to make sure the mar­ket is ready. So we will launch a sea­sonal ser­vice first.”

Dias told China Daily that dur­ing the last two decades, the merged with United Air­lines through a $3 bil­lion stock­swap deal.

The new com­pany, tak­ing the name of the lat­ter, is based in Chicago and started out as the world’s largest air­line in rev­enue pas­sen­ger miles.

Dias, who first vis­ited China in 1993, said his ini­tial per­cep­tion was that work­ing in the coun­try was “bu­reau­cratic and dif­fi­cult, with ev­ery­thing re­quir­ing to be chopped”. But sur­pris­ingly, things have been “pretty easy”.

“On the Chi­nese side, usu­ally the ap­provals are rel­a­tively easy and fast, if all in­for­ma­tion is pre­pared prop­erly,” he said. “Peo­ple at the CAAC (Civil Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion of China) are very pro­fes­sional. The Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties have been sup­port­ive and very ef­fi­cient in say­ing yes or no. When there is a no, they usu­ally tell

sea change in China has been “un­prece­dented” and has nour­ished the large mid­dle class, “which is crit­i­cal for the avi­a­tion in­dus­try”. He added that at least 90 Chi­nese cities are home to 1 mil­lion res­i­dents or more, whereas only nine cities in the US are on the same scale.

“I have a watch list of about 50 cities,” Dias said. “Once dis­pos­able in­come hits a cer­tain level — usu­ally around 30,000 yuan ($4,688) a year, the next thing peo­ple would do is travel. Ac­cord­ing to our sur­vey, the top us what is ex­pected to fix it.” Liv­ing a met­ro­pol­i­tan life again, Dias finds him­self set­tled quite com­fort­ably in the “very in­ter­na­tional but also very lo­cal city” of Hong Kong and has fallen in love with dim sum. He praised the MTR trans­port sys­tem as “in­cred­i­ble” and air­port ser­vices in the SAR as “un­be­liev­able”.

“Peo­ple of Hong Kong may take some of the things the Hong Kong gov­ern­ment does well for granted, be­cause they have got used to it and think of it as nor­mal. But com­pared with what we have in the US, Hong Kong has put a lot of re­sources to­gether,” he said.

Among the books on Dias’ im­me­di­ate read­ing list is On China by Henry Kissinger. “I haven’t dived into it. But (I am ex­pect­ing) history and maybe a bit more about the fu­ture,” he said.

long-haul des­ti­na­tion for Chi­nese is the US. We are per­fectly po­si­tioned to catch that.”

Be­sides, the new ar­range­ment an­nounced in Novem­ber last year to ex­tend short-term visas for busi­ness­men and tourists on ei­ther side from a year to 10 years is also be­lieved to boost traf­fic be­tween the two coun­tries. “I’m cer­tainly very happy to get a 10-year visa to visit China,” Dias said.

Con­tact the writer at em­madai@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

PARKER ZHENG / CHINA DAILY

Wal­ter Dias is es­pe­cially upbeat about United Air­lines’ Boe­ing 787 Dream­liner, which he calls “a game changer for avi­a­tion”. He also has a watch list of about 50 cities on the Chi­nese main­land, as the car­rier’s sur­vey has shown that the top long-haul des­ti­na­tion for up­wardly mo­bile Chi­nese is the US.

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