Figures Suggest That Chinese Domestic Aviation Has Recovered

Forecasts from a leading travel data firm suggest that China’s domestic aviation market will have fully recovered to 2019’s levels by next week. If the predictions are accurate, this will be the first market in the world to have returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Air China
Domestic aviation has almost returned to 2019 levels. Photo: Getty Images

Chinese domestic traffic to reach 100% next week

China’s air traffic hit rock bottom in February, as the pandemic began to spread and borders around the world closed. Since then, airlines have been progressively ramping up their services, with domestic seeing healthy growth week on week.

Now, travel data firm ForwardKeys is predicting that domestic travel will be at 100% of 2019 levels by the first week in September. Their report suggests that, last week, domestic arrivals at Chinese airports were at 86% of 2019 levels, while bookings hit 98% of last year’s demand.

Olivier Ponti, VP, Insights at ForwardKeys noted the importance of this trend. He said,

“This is a highly significant moment because it is the first time, since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, that a major segment of the aviation market anywhere in the world has returned to pre-pandemic levels. The big question is whether heavy discounting will still be needed to maintain the recovery or whether the industry will return to profitability during the upcoming Golden Week holiday in October.”

China coronavirus domestic air travel
Domestic arrivals were at 86% of 2019 levels last week. Photo: Getty Images

Since Chinese airlines began flying again, many have implemented deep discounts on tickets, offering seats for less than cost or selling unlimited flight passes in an attempt to get passengers back on the plane. Clearly, this is not sustainable, so it’s crucial for these carriers that they can get pricing back to where it needs to be, without a drop off in traffic.

Since the start of the pandemic, China has been a couple of months ahead of the rest of the world. Although there are still some hurdles to pass before international returns to where it used to be, the recovery of domestic markets should be a positive sign for the rest of the world.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

How has traffic recovered so fast?

The ramp-up of domestic air travel in China has taken place much faster than could have been predicted. If the forecast by ForwardKeys is accurate, it could mean a full recovery of 2019 levels in less than six months.

ForwardKeys has based its estimates on a number of key factors. To begin with, the pandemic is largely under control in China. From registering thousands of cases per day in February, the numbers had dropped to just 30 – 80 per day in March. Although there was a slight uptick in late July, driven by a second wave in Beijing, since mid-August, daily new cases have been fewer than 40.

Hainan Airlines
Airlines have been aggresively pricing fares to get people back into the skies. Photo: Getty Images

Accompanying this positive is the fact that domestic seat capacity has been growing week on week and is set to grow again in this final week of August, by 5.7%, according to ForwardKeys. Adding more seats usually means some flexibility in pricing, tempting passengers to take the trip they’ve been putting off all summer.

ForwardKeys also notes that there will be some temporary travel uptick as students return to school or fit in a last visit to relatives ahead of the new term. Airlines have been anticipating this, with several launching aggressive price promotions to boost demand from this market further.

With Chinese travel lovers either unwilling or unable to travel internationally at the current time, many have been turning to staycations to fill the void. ForwardKeys notes that Sanya, a holiday haven in the South China Sea, has been a popular choice, with 14.2% more visitors during August than it saw in 2019. Other key Chinese cities grew in tourism too, although visitors to Beijing were down almost a quarter due to the second outbreak of COVID.

While there’s still a long way to go, it’s certainly refreshing to get some positive news in aviation today.