For the earlier history of Sichuan Airlines see: Pork for Planes: Sichuan's TU-154s
The home of Sichuan Airlines is its namesake Sichuan province (formerly known as Szechuan in the West) and the province's capital city Chengdu. It is located in Western China (although looking at a map of China it looks more central) and is a huge province of 485,000 square kilometres and over 80 million people. Chengdu itself is home to over 10 million people in its urban area and nowadays its Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport is one of the 30 busiest in the world and the 4th busiest in China. It has certainly come a long way since the mid-90s and so has its hometown airline Sichuan Airlines (Chengdu Airlines is also based there and is owned by Sichuan).
By late 1995 Sichuan Airlines was just one of a number of small regional Chinese airlines owned largely by the provincial government of its area. Its fleet consisted of only 5 Y-7 turboprops and 5 new but obsolete 1992 build TU-154Ms. I can't but help to think that the fleet that had been effectively forced on it played some part in enabling it to jump the queue and get access belatedly to more modern equipment. Thus it was that in December 1995 little Sichuan Airlines would become the first airline in China to operate an aircraft type that has proven fundamental to the success of China's aviation scene today - the Airbus A320.
The first aircraft, a new build A320-232 leased from ILFC and registered B-2340, was delivered on December 5, 1995. She was joined on January 25 by a second frame and on February 29th by a third. The A320s must have been a massive change compared to the TU-154s, which with all due respect to the rugged Russians could never compete economically or for passenger comfort with the Airbuses.
As with many of the smaller Chinese airlines at the time (Hainan Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, Wuhan Airlines etc) growth for Sichuan was slow, unlike that during the 2000s. The TU-154s remained in service alongside the A320s even as the fleet of the latter increased slowly. A fourth A320 arrived in December 1998 followed by a fifth in July 1999.
The TU-154s by now must have been causing some alarm since the type had acquired a poor record for safety. The crash of China Southwest flight 4509 on February 24 1999, which killed all 61 people aboard, resulted in the removal from service of all TU-154s in China, though the crash itself was caused by a maintenance error. Sichuan's aircraft were still operational into 1999 and it is unclear when they were stored. They didn't reappear in Russia until late 2001.
This wasn't a major problem for Sichuan Airlines anyway as they had already begun to acquire the natural replacement for the thirsty trijets in 1998. This was of course the Airbus A321 of which the first pair arrived in September and December respectively.
Interestingly it was the fifth A320 and not the first A321 that would carry Sichuan's first special livery. One of the things that Sichuan province is most famous for is its native population of Giant Pandas. Indeed Sichuan is the last major stronghold of this endangered but charismatic species. The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries are a network of 7 reseves and 9 parks that are home to 30% of the species and are listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
With all this Panda publicity available it would have been remiss of Sichuan Airlines not to take advantage and accordingly B-2397 arrived wearing a nice, but admittedly discrete compared to later efforts, special scheme featuring a Panda logo in three places on each side of the airframe. The aircraft arrived in the fleet on July 9, 1999, having test flown as F-WWDP, and remains one of only two of the 1990s build A320s still in the fleet.
Interestingly this livery didn't seem to last too long. Airliners.net shows her still wearing it in June 2000 but it is gone by late 2002, seemingly with stickers placed over where the Pandas were. I personally feel privileged to own this model of it since it is one of only 50 made by Panda models for the 2016 Beijing model fair. I was lucky enough to come across it at the excellent Hobby Club Australia ebay store.
These early Airbuses have proven to be a major success for Sichuan Airlines, that continues to have kept its independence and grown massively. Today its shareholders include all three of the majors but with the Sichuan government still the majority owner (at 40%). The fleet now consists of around 23 A319s, 60 A320s, 39 A321s, 11 A330s and an A350-900. A far cry from 1999 when it was just 5 A320s, 2 A321s and a few Y-7s.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: