Number cruncher leads string of aviation firsts
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.
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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.