By Alexia Vlachou
ATHENS, Sept. 30 (Xinhua) -- An Airbus A330-200 aircraft of Air China landed at Athens International Airport (AIA) on Saturday morning, inaugurating the first direct Beijing-Athens flight.
The non-stop connection between the two countries is a significant milestone in the history of China and Greece relations to further strengthen the bilateral ties, officials highlighted.
The flight which arrived at 8:15 a.m. with a total of 205 passengers on board, received a ceremonial water cannon salute on the runway.
Following the landing, a high-profile ceremony was held welcoming the first group of passengers who took the flight to Athens.
First to disembark from the plane was Greek Prime Minister's wife Betty Batziana, who was welcomed by the Chinese Ambassador in Greece Zou Xiaoli and his wife. Chinese passengers holding Greek and Chinese flags followed.
Air China will operate two direct flights a week, on Wednesday and Saturday, reducing the journey time between Beijing and Athens to just 10 hours.
"This is a long-cherished dream come true. But this success was not easily achieved. Over the past several years, our two sides have been making persistent efforts to create the conditions that would make this possible," Zou stated during his speech.
Air China originally launched service to Athens in 2007 with stopover in Dubai. Since 2011, the Beijing-Athens line operated with a short stopover in Munich every Wednesday and Saturday.
On the Greek part, Minister of Infrastructure, Transport and Networks Christos Spirtzis said that the direct flight marked a new era in the aviation relations of the two countries with positive impact in tourism, trade, economy and culture.
"It heralds the close and direct connection of our people, our values and our civilizations as well," he added.
For Spirtzis, the Beijing-Athens line has a special dynamic. According to figures, passenger traffic increased by 48 percent in 2017 compared with 2016.
Within the last three years, there was a 37.2 percent increase of the overall passenger traffic from/to China, justifying the need of the market for direct flights.
Addressing the ceremony, Chairman of the Board of the Athens international Airport Dimitris Dimitriou said, "a new perspective emerges which shows that the increasing demand and commercial trade between the two countries is a key factor to success."
Under the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, Greece and China have developed a closer relationship in the last years especially in the areas of trade, culture and tourism.
According to officials, the direct flight service will enhance the potential of Greece as the regional transportation hub. In addition, it will play a growing role in bridging cultures closer and helping to realize shared prosperity.
"When the two countries are connected through culture, everything is possible," mayor of Marathon city Ilias Psinakis told Xinhua.
Praising the bilateral relations of the countries, Zou referred to successful Chinese projects in Greece, highlighting that good results come only with concerted efforts from both sides.
"China's COSCO Shipping did well in Piraeus Port and State Grip Cooperation of China has purchased 24 percent stake of Greece's state-owned power grid operator ADMIE. Through the holding of the year of ocean cooperation, the year of culture cooperation, cities forum, ancient civilization forum and TIF with China as the honored country, Greece and China know each other better, their trust and cooperation are enhanced, and their ties of interest are strengthened," Zou told Xinhua after the ceremony.
To mark the launch of Beijing-Athens flight, Chinese pilots and crew along with Greek and Chinese officials held a banner reading "Congratulations for the successful inaugural direct flight of Air China that connects Beijing with Athens."
"Everything was perfect for the flight. We prepared well. We had good weather. We are on time. We are safe. We have a grand welcome ceremony here. As a crew member of the first flight, I am very proud," Peng Guowen, Captain of the first flight told Xinhua.
On his part, Qiao Shuwen, General Manager of Air China's affiliate in Athens expressed his optimism that Chinese visitors will increase.
"In the future, our main task would be bringing more Chinese tourists to Greece, promoting Greece's tourism industry, enhancing trade relations and friendship between the two countries," he told Xinhua.
Air China offers the largest selection of routes between China and Europe. The new Beijing-Athens service will bring the total number of routes to 26, with an offering of 300 flights per week to 19 major European destinations.