China Southern Airlines views the Australia and New Zealand markets as a high priority, and plans to continue to increase service into the region, a senior airline executive tells Aviation Week.

The carrier currently has 42 flights a week into the two countries, including seven to New Zealand, all from its hub at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. China Southern intends to increase the combined flights to 55 per week by 2015, although it has not yet decided which routes will receive the additional flights, says Henry He, the carrier’s general manager for Australia and New Zealand.

All of China Southern’s New Zealand flights operate into Auckland Airport, although Christchurch International Airport has strong potential as a destination in the near future, and the carrier initially may consider operating charter flights there, says He.

A new air services agreement between China and New Zealand allows mainland Chinese carriers up to three daily flights to New Zealand. So far the daily China Southern service is the only flight by a mainland Chinese airline in this market.

The Auckland route started as three times a week but was increased to daily in November, 2011. One of the challenges of this route has been gaining acceptance from non-Chinese, says He. China Southern increasingly is marketing its Guangzhou hub as a connecting point to Europe and other international destinations from Australia and New Zealand. About 20% of passengers on flights from Australia are connecting to international destinations beyond Guangzhou, says He.

Australia has been a growth market for China Southern, with passenger numbers up 57% in 2012 versus the previous year.

The airline also markets one-stop flights from Perth International Airport in Western Australia to the U.S. West Coast, as Guangzhou is a good alternative to connecting in eastern Australian cities.

To encourage more connecting traffic, China Southern has been lobbying Chinese authorities to make three-day visa exemptions available for transit passengers in Guangzhou as they already are in Beijing and Shanghai. Approval is likely in the second half of this year, says He.

Freight demand has been very strong on the Auckland-Guangzhou route, says Stephen Yao, China Southern’s New Zealand cargo manager. Cargo load factors on the flights into Auckland are in the 70-80% range for most of the year, while loads tend to be more seasonal on the return flights to Guangzhou.

Seafood and other perishable cargo make up a large percentage of freight, and last year more than 500 tons of lobster from New Zealand was transported on China Southern flights, Yao says.

The carrier also is continuing to upgrade the aircraft on existing routes, says He. Currently, China Southern uses its Airbus A330-223s on the Auckland route, with 217 seats offered in a four-class configuration.

China Southern generally uses A330-243s on the Australian routes, which are older than the A330-223s but have more seats. Unlike the newer -223s, the -243s do not have lie-flat business-class seats or individual inflight entertainment screens throughout the aircraft.

The airline plans to introduce A330-223s on its Brisbane and Perth routes from April. The Sydney and Melbourne routes, with higher demand, use either the larger A330-243s or A330-300s. Newer aircraft could be put on the Sydney and Melbourne routes later this year, says He.