Has China’s Aviation Recovery Burst?

China’s domestic airline capacity has fallen over 32% in the last two weeks. The drop comes as the country battles its worst COVID outbreak since the disease first emerged in Wuhan. So has China’s aviation recovery burst after months of recovery? Let’s find out.

Chinese airlines have been forced to cut capacity as half of the country’s provinces see new outbreaks. Photo: Getty Images

Big fall

China has seen its domestic airline capacity almost consistently rise since March 2020, after the country stamped out its original COVID outbreak. By the March of 2021, the country had exceeded pre-pandemic domestic capacity and was flying at nearly 110% of 2019 levels over the summer.

However, no rise can be perfect in a world with COVID-19. In the last few weeks, China has seen another outbreak that has triggered strict movement restrictions within and between provinces. This has forced airlines to scale back their flying rapidly to support containment efforts. According to Bloomberg, capacity has fallen by 32% in the last week alone.

Major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and even Wuhan again have been hit by the latest wave of cases. Photo: Getty Images

This is also the steepest drop in capacity seen since COVID first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019. In previous outbreaks over the last year, airlines have slowly reduced capacity depending on which provinces faced restrictions. However, with the Delta variant already having spread to over half of the country’s provinces, airlines have had to take quick action.

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China is one of the few countries, and the only one with a massive population, that follows a strict zero COVID policy. That means even a few cases in a population of 1.4 billion people can trigger widespread lockdown restrictions. As of 10th August, the country has seen a record number of daily cases since last year, at 143. Most of these are locally transmitted, increasing fears of a larger outbreak.

However, for airlines, this is but a temporary setback. In February, carriers were forced to drop capacity by 40% in the weeks leading up to the Chinese New Year due to few local cases that could become larger outbreaks. However, capacity rebounded within a month and has exceeded pre-pandemic levels by March.

ARJ21 interior
While the Delta variant is a deadlier foe than other variants, Chinese officials hope to have it under control in a few weeks. Photo: Getty Images

China hopes to have the latest outbreak under control in the next three weeks, paving the way for a quick rebound for airlines. However, until then, capacity may continue falling at cases rise quickly to their highest levels.


While China works hard to maintain COVID zero status, is this a sustainable route? The answer is likely no for a country as interconnected as China. With major events like the Winter Olympics just months away and businesses already struggling to fly in employees, China’s stringent border restrictions have left it behind other countries in terms of a full reopening. Moreover, airlines also need international flying to continue growing.

China risks being left behind the world in travel if it continues to carry on its strict border policies for years. Photo: Getty Images

Any international reopening will require a larger share of the population to be vaccinated to prevent more cases. For now, airlines will be waiting with bated breath to see the current outbreak pass and bounce back to their highs.

What do you think about airlines’ decision to scale back capacity? Let us know in the comments!