Chinese air traffic was the first to fall, as the extent of the COVID outbreak became clear. Now, it is showing the green shoots of recovery, with each of the biggest three airlines operating around 1,000 more flights per week by the end of May. Although air traffic remains at just around 40% of what it was in January, there’s a clear upwards trend giving hope to the rest of the world for a swift and solid recovery.
China’s fall in air traffic
China has become something of a yardstick for the aviation industry around the globe. When the outbreak began in Wuhan at the start of the year, China was the first country to start shutting down flights, as it implemented the first incidence of something the whole world now knows too well – lockdown.
But it wasn’t just Chinese airlines that were affected. As the scale and severity of the outbreak began to filter through, international airlines began slashing flights from schedules, some for just a week at first, others for several months.
By early April, the whole world had begun to grind to a standstill. China Southern was operating the only commercial A380 service in the world by then, and that was on a domestic route. Some flights continued to China from overseas, but with a ban on foreign visitors, this was primarily cargo flights to collect PPE from the ‘world’s factory’ for nations battling COVID-19.
Aviation data provider Spire Aviation tracked the changes in what was once one of the world’s busiest airspaces. On a single day in January this year, the 25th to be precise, Spire Aviation tracked just short of 9,000 flights. By the same day, three months later, on April 25th, this number was just over 4,000.
The drop of 51% of flights was a marker of just how quiet the skies above China had become as a result of the pandemic. However, since then, there has been a quiet and gradual resumption of services, giving some green shoots of hope to the rest of the world for its recovery.
The darkest hour has passed
Spire Aviation has been tracking the flights of the three largest Chinese carriers. What the data shows is that China is over the worst of the COVID impacts.
The three airlines tracked are China Eastern, China Southern and Air China. As the three biggest airlines in China, in fact, the biggest in Asia, between them, these carriers link over 600 destinations and carry in excess of 350 million passengers a year. As such, they are a good measure of the general trend and shape of aviation’s recovery in the East.
According to the Spire data, the rock bottom point for scheduled flights occurred around week seven this year, somewhere towards the end of February. From here, capacity began to return. Things picked up quickly over the following fortnight, and although they leveled off throughout April, they have again started to pick up.
By May 5th, China Eastern was the biggest airline in the world, for the first time in history. The upwards trend has continued, with a particular uptick seen in the last week of May. All three carriers operated around 1,000 more flights in the last week of May than they had a week before, pointing to a slow but steady recovery, despite overall flights still only around 40% of what they were in January.
As more airlines resume services and international carriers start flying into China again, this trend will only continue upwards. Isn’t it refreshing to get some good news for a change?