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Back in the game: China re-opens to international travel


China’s re-opening to international travel is likely to be more of a slow burner than a game changer for the aviation industry, writes OAG’s chief analyst, John Grant.

The news of China re-opening to all international travel from January 8, 2023, came as a surprise to most forecasters. Indeed, considering how much China’s capacity has changed over the last few years, it was reasonable to expect further disruption.

In the past three years, China went from being the fifth largest international market in the world with over 102 million seats, to just 7.4 million international seats in 2022, making it 51st in the global rankings – just ahead of Ethiopia, but behind Cyprus. Understandably, this was a collapse with serious implications for the entire industry.

China’s international market before the re-opening: what’s the damage?

Prior to the January re-opening, the international market from China stood at just 7% of its pre-pandemic levels. Although the locally based airlines were to some extent able to turn their capacity towards domestic services, for most of them, the impact on financial results was still crippling.

Chinese airlines unsurprisingly reported disheartening figures at the end of 2022, with Air China and China Southern showing year-to-date losses of $4.6 billion and $2.4 billion respectively. For China-based carriers, then, the removal of quarantine requirements was welcome news.

However, it will take time for the market to bounce back, as airlines need to adapt on an international level.

One thing to consider is that the sale of flights to and from China has been largely suspended since 2020. This is partly due to operational difficulties: limitations on capacity, damaging operating performance, expensive penalties of presenting COVID-positive passengers and/or staff are just some of the issues global airlines could face in the market.

This put most airlines operating flights to and from China into maintaining a ‘holding position’, essentially operating with minimal capacity in the market until its eventual return. For example, in 2022, Hong Kong airlines had less than 10% of its 2019 China frequency, and Singapore Airlines reduced the number of flights to China from up to 30 daily services to just one a day.

The impact on global airlines

For most airlines then, rebuilding capacity to and from China will be a slow process that will require careful consideration, especially for American and European carriers, which have largely re-oriented their aircraft to other international or Asian destinations and now face the logistical hurdle of finding capacity across all routes.

Finnair, amongst others, had previously spent many years focusing on developing a stronger China market presence, but has now built a completely new network based on United States destinations and much less exposure to China and the broader Asia market.

With many airlines having pre-sold many of their summer 2023 flights, switching capacity to now also cover China might pose a problem.

European carriers find themselves in an even more difficult position given the current geopolitical situation. For airlines based in Asia and North America, accessing China is a perhaps logistically challenging, but otherwise feasible reset to the normal operating patterns and schedules. With flights scheduled to maximise onward connectivity, it will largely be a return to business as usual.

For European airlines, however, an eventual return to China will be especially challenging as they must continue to avoid Russian airspace.

In such a situation, alternate routings from Europe to Asia require either a Southerly track crossing Central Asia, or a Northerly routing which sees aircraft reach almost as high as the North Pole before heading back down.

In either case, the re-routing adds around one to two hours of flight time, taking the total beyond the twelve-hour mark – the point at which carriers have to grapple with complex aircraft integration issues that bring about either a delay to the returning flight, inefficient crew and aircraft utilisation, or a range of missed connecting opportunities.

To take the example of Lufthansa, which operated 2,100 flights to China in 2019, adding an extra two hours of flight time equals 175 days of additional flight time just in one direction.

No airline has such spare capacity in its fleet, meaning that even after this international re-opening, airlines will likely have to continue to operate with less frequency than in 2019 – and for some, returning to this market might not be worth the lost opportunities elsewhere on a global scale.

Considerations for China-based airlines

A number of administrative and industry-related factors have to be taken into account when evaluating the recovery of China-based airlines in the past year.

First, throughout 2022, these airlines continued to operate to Europe via Russian airspace, which created a significant time and cost benefit to carriers in a re-opened market. This was added to the pre-existing financial advantage that Chinese airlines enjoy over European rivals due to lower wages and operating costs.

Second, there is the issue of Chinese travellers being held back by the lack of passports. China suspended the renewal of passports in the last three years, meaning that approximately 30% of the market will need to reapply for their travel documents.

This is a time-consuming process, even without the immense backlog that administrative bodies will now have to address. Whilst, of course, this still leaves about 70% of Chinese passports valid, it will remain an impediment throughout the early months of the international re-opening for outbound travellers.

Third, it must be considered that prior to 2020, outbound travel from China was largely led by group travel and package holidays, which we expect will remain the same following the re-opening.

However, since the pandemic, many package operators have developed other source markets, such as India and the Middle East. Any tour operators hoping to tapinto the China market again will have to go through the logistics of re-contracting and adjusting product requirements, making this market slower to rebound. Instead, we can expect that visiting friends and relatives will be driving recovery in the first half of the year, with the US (and its population of 3.8 million Chinese Americans) being a key destination.

The state of recovery: China aviation’s present and future

Some of these factors support, while others work against, China’s airlines, and the mixed route of recovery reflects that well.

Rebuilding is well and truly underway, with some of China’s biggest airlines operating more domestic seat capacity than in February of 2019. China’s biggest low-cost carrier, Spring Airlines, has also recorded strong capacity growth, with seats now 46% higher than in February 2019. Juneyao Airlines has also seen growth, with seats 30% ahead of February 2019.

In terms of domestic flights, not all routes have recovered to their pre-pandemic level yet, admittedly in part due to the timing of the Chinese New Year, which fell on January 22 this year versus February 5 in 2019.

Chengdu-Beijing, Guangzhou-Chengdu, Beijing-Shenzhen and Chongqing-Shenzhen are all currently below February 2019 levels. However, of the top 10 busiest domestic routes, Guangzhou-Hangzhou and Beijing-Shanghai have recovered well, with 20% more seats this February than in 2019.

From an international perspective, the market still operates at just 18% of its February 2019 levels, but seat numbers are seeing a steady increase.

Carriers added 355,000 more international seats compared to January. Capacity has grown across most destinations, with Thailand, Australia, the UAE, Vietnam, and the Philippines having seen the highest levels of recovery. Currently, the two largest international markets are Hong Kong and Macau.

Overall, China aviation has begun a slow but steady process of returning to its pre-pandemic situation. The removal of restrictions in January was sudden, but as expected, it has brought about slow change and we will have to wait even longer before China regains its former position as a major international market.

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