China Southern Notches Over 60% Load Factor In 2020

State-owned China Southern Airlines released its full-year and December 2020 performance results recently. Unsurprisingly, when compared to results of the previous year, the airline has seen a significant drop in almost every metric, including available seat kilometers (ASK), revenue passenger kilometers (RPK), and overall load factor. Somewhat notable, however, is the airline’s ability to attain a 60% overall load factor over the course of 2020. Excluding cargo and mail, the passenger load factor alone was over 71%!  Let’s look at how the airline achieved this.

China Southern 787
Photo: Vincenzo Pace |

Before we get into reporting on load factor, let’s first see what it actually means. Investopedia defines load factor as,

“…an indicator that measures the percentage of available seating capacity that is filled with passengers.”

It goes on to say that the higher the load factor, the more an airline can spread its fixed costs amongst passengers. With the nature of the airline business typically characterized by thin profit margins, having a high load factor is essential to an airline’s success.

China Southern’s performance results

According to the airline, its cumulative 2020 overall load factor was 61.38% – this figure combines both passenger load factor as well as cargo and mail. This is down 8.88% from the previous year.

The passenger load factor alone, however, was an even more impressive-sounding 71.46%, down 11.35% from the previous year. Factoring in cargo and mail brings down the overall figure as it was just 49.79% – even if this segment does show a small 0.77% bump in year-over-year change.

Overall, domestic, regional, and international passenger load factors are down 10 to 32% compared to the previous year, with regional and international cargo and mail load factors up. Regional cargo and mail even saw a jump of 20%.

China Southern results
The load factor statistics for China Southern Airlines, divided into passenger numbers and cargo/mail figures. Image: China Southern

Analyzing the numbers

While achieving more than 61% for an overall load factor (and over 71% for passengers) might sound impressive, those familiar with statistics know that this can be deceiving.

While the airline’s planes were 71% full in terms of passengers, we have to think about how many planes are actually flying and how often – when compared to a ‘normal year.’ After all, the airline (or any airline) could operate one aircraft once per week, fill it with passengers, and claim a 100% load factor.

Thus, we need to examine the airline’s capacity figures to get a more accurate picture of its performance.

China Southern A380
China Southern was the only airline to run a consistent A380 service throughout 2020. Of course, this was often taking place once per week, and on fewer-than-normal routes. Photo: Melv_L-MACASR via Wikimedia Common

Capacity for passengers is measured in available seat kilometers while ATK, available tonne-kilometers, is a metric used for cargo and mail. Examining these figures gives us a very different idea of the airline’s performance.

That’s because, when compared to 2019, China Southern reduced its ASKs and ATKs in almost every category. The most shocking numbers are an 87% drop in regional ASKs and an 80% drop in international ASKs.

China Southern results
China Southern’s reported capacity. This is measured in available seat kilometers (ASK) and available tonne kilometers (ATK).  Image: China Southern

International cargo and mail shines

Domestic and regional cargo and mail took a hit too. However, international cargo and mail saw 1% additional capacity compared to the previous year. Combined with the load factor increase in this sector, it’s a fairly impressive achievement for the carrier. Indeed, anything that isn’t a substantial decline can be considered impressive for 2020.

What do you think of China Southern’s 2020 performance results? Were there any surprises for you? Let us know in the comments.