By John Mulligan, Independent.ie
China's Hainan Airlines is close to deciding on whether to open a route from Dublin to Beijing in what would be Ireland's first nonstop link to Asia's biggest economy.
The carrier is part of the huge Chinese conglomerate HNA, a Fortune 500 company whose activities range from aviation to hotels, and shipping to technology. HNA chief operating officer William Zhang confirmed yesterday that a Dublin-Beijing route is under serious consideration.
He said that Hainan Airlines -- the fourth-largest airline in China -- is "very likely" to launch the service, demand for which is currently being assessed.
In what would be a significant coup for the IDA, Mr Zhang also revealed that Ireland is one of the countries where HNA might consider developing its first regional headquarters, saying that Ireland has "strong advantages".
Senior HNA executives were in Dublin for the past few days, and held a meeting at the Chinese embassy to discuss the route, said Mr Zhang.
He declined to be drawn on when a route could be announced, but airport authorities in both China and Dublin have been involved in discussions.
Government agencies such as the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Tourism Ireland have been pushing for a direct route for a number of years. The DAA, which controls Dublin and Cork airports, has been heavily involved in efforts to lure a Chinese carrier to the capital.
HNA, which also has a huge property portfolio, aims to be a Fortune 100 company within three years.
Last year, its Bohai Leasing subsidiary paid US$2.6 billion to buy Dublin-based aircraft lessor Avolon, which was co-founded by Domhnal Slattery.
Mr Slattery continues to run Avolon, which is now the world's fourth-biggest aircraft leasing firm.
Mr Slattery is hopeful that a Beijing-Dublin route will be launched.
"The core issue now is does it make business sense to do it," he said.
"It's got to stand on its own merits. I'd be optimistic."
Yesterday, Dublin Airport also secured other new business as KLM announced it's launching a twice a day service to Amsterdam starting in October.
HNA was founded in 1993 and has annual revenues of over US$25 billion. It is heavily involved in the aviation sector.
Apart from aircraft leasing, it also owns stakes in other airlines and last year agreed to pay US$2.8 billion to buy aircraft baggage handler Swissport. Earlier this year, it agreed to pay US$1.5 billion for aircraft catering firm Gategroup.
It has also been linked to a sale of aircraft leasing firm CIT Aerospace. That business could fetch as much as EUR2.7 billion. HNA Capital chief investment officer Guang Yang declined to say yesterday whether HNA would bid for the CIT business.
Mr Slattery said that if HNA did pursue CIT Aerospace and managed to buy it, that such a deal would be transformational for the group.
"CIT is in a process at the moment and we'll see how that evolves," he said. CIT has about 300 aircraft on its books.
"That would be a very significant acquisition for us to consider and could be quite transformative for us were we to proceed with it or engage," he said.