China’s Domestic Air Travel Has Collapsed, Were They Telling The Truth About Recovery?

China’s initial Covid-19 outbreak was probably 40 times worse than they reported.

While much blame for lack of transparency is leveed at the national government, early on it’s likely local officials who downplayed the severity of the crisis. Now President Xi relies on projecting an image that China has beaten back the virus and is among the best in the world at doing so. Without this his re-election is at risk. What does a 50% year-over-year drop in air travel after China supposedly beat the virus say?

I’ve been skeptical that domestic Chinese air travel demand has really returned to pre-Covid levels the way the government has reported, however they’ve reported being at nearly 100% of pre-crisis capacity.

That no longer holds. In fact OAG data shows a “near 27% reduction in capacity and the loss of over 3.2 million domestic seats” from last week to this week, following reductions over the
past several weeks, though domestic flights are expected to jump up for Chinese New Year.

Here’s airline seat capacity by region for the current week, compared to last week and compared to last year.

Week Of Compared to Compared To
Feb 8th Prior Week Jan 2020
North East Asia          12,381,874 -21.0% -50.8%
North America          12,288,712 4.2% -45.7%
South East Asia            4,164,672 1.2% -61.7%
Western Europe            4,082,815 -2.3% -78.1%
South Asia            3,545,097 1.1% -31.3%
Mideast            2,183,589 -2.3% -55.7%
Southern S. America            1,996,247 -3.3% -50.5%
Central America            1,632,279 0.2% -33.2%
Central/E. Europe            1,490,107 2.2% -59.7%
Southwest Pacific            1,230,554 9.4% -56.6%
Northern S. America                886,455 -11.0% -49.0%
Caribbean                516,758 6.3% -47.6%
Eastern Africa                448,778 -0.7% -41.5%
North Africa                438,502 -4.7% -58.5%
Central/West Africa                387,559 -0.4% -41.6%
Souhern Africa                309,084 -2.2% -59.1%
Central Asia                174,485 1.8% -49.4%
Total          48,157,567 -5.7% -54.9%

The U.S. is currently the largest aviation market in the world. Vietnam which mostly licked the virus early on (but has had some flareups) is back to 84% of last year’s capacity. In contrast the U.K. only has 11% as much flying and Germany 13%. China’s numbers now reflect world averages.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary, let’s learn more before making comments. 27% week to week change has nothing to do with COVID, it’s Chinese New Year.

  2. @yiran – Chinese domestic are traffic has been consistently collapsing, and has fallen about 50%. This isn’t a one week phenomenon.

  3. This is an interesting question that I’ve been curious about as well, but my conclusion is that things in China have in fact gotten back to something approaching normal. I’ve been looking up hotel rates in big cities in China that I travel to frequently and have been surprised that they are now basically back to normal (or higher), while in most of the places I’ve travelled in the Americas since the start of the Pandemic the hotels are desperately empty and giving rooms away (I stayed in a very nice hotels in Mexico City recently for $50 night and under, and you can easily book a room in Manhattan now for under $100/night.) Anybody with WeChat can look at the reservations available on the High Speed Train system and it looks to me like these trains have been pretty well filled . . . and I think you need to make allowances for how air travel has a relatively smaller market share in China than the United States because of the relative popularity of travel by rail. And one can now see things in China in nearly real time without traveling there. Through the miracle of Youtube you can see that restaurants and tourist destinations are well peopled with domestic tourists. China might not be back to a real normal, and is certainly missing every foreign visitor and nearly all foreign residents, but my assessment made from far away is that they are pretty close.

  4. So figures released by the Chinese government were manipulated? Absolutely shocking.

    Someone in China (other than a Uighur) should pay for this!

  5. The National Health Committee of China is requiring those who travel to another province during the Chinese New Year to produce negative COVID test results before travel. In addition, many local governments are imposing stricter restrictions such as multiple tests (including both nasopharyngeal swab and anal swab tests) and/or mandatory 14-day quarantine at designated locations for anyone who enters from outside the local area. People have received warning calls and/or text messages directly from their hometowns’ governments, asking whether they intended to return to their hometowns during the holiday, and if they answered yes, they were told to be prepared for the strict tests and/or quarantine requirements. This was actually telling those people not to return this year. Nationally, travel during the holiday is strongly discouraged by both central and local governments. These strict restrictions may have explained the recent drop of air travel.

  6. It would be far better if you stuck to being neutral. I don’t see any posts in this blog about how in October domestic China travel was far higher than that year prior. Yes, more people traveled domedtically in China in October 2020 than they did in October 2019, something that has been widely verified by Western observers, including press and financial industry.

    From this blogger: crickets.

    As you know if you only paid attention China is actually taking severe steps to prevent covid hotspots from spreading, starting with curtailing travel. Unlike the USA that’s killing its people and overworking its unappreciated doctors and hospital staff while making everyone miserable.

  7. I am a Chinese and I have been following your blog for almost 10 years. This is the first time I have left a message to you. I only tell you what it is through my own feelings.
    1. The Chinese New Year is coming soon, similar to your Christmas holiday. So business travel basically stopped.
    2. The Chinese New people moved on a large scale, but because the government was worried about the spread of the virus and encouraged to spend the New Year there, the local government imposed more restrictions. So I also cancelled two air travles in next month. One is visiting my parents, Another is Beach vacation
    3. As a Beijing resident, I have received the first shot of the vaccine under the community organization.

    My English writing ability is lower average, I hope I have correctly described what I want to say by myself

  8. @Jake _”As you know if you only paid attention China is actually taking severe steps to prevent covid hotspots from spreading, starting with curtailing travel. Unlike the USA that’s killing its people and overworking its unappreciated doctors and hospital staff while making everyone miserable.”

    The reason China can do this is that they’re a Communist dictatorship, and the US isn’t.

  9. “Now President Xi relies on projecting an image that China has beaten back the virus and is among the best in the world at doing so. Without this his re-election is at risk.”

    That is the dumbest thing I read on the internet today. So far this year, probably.

    Xi is elected by the National People’s Congress, the body that voted a few years ago to remove term limits so Xi could stay in power for as long as he wants, by a vote of … 2958 to 2. Those term limits had been in place for every Chinese leader after Mao. I think it’s safe to say his re-election is assured regardless of what happens. Of course Xi does care about his image, but the idea of Xi worrying about “re-election” is laughable.

  10. So Brian L – if you would rather live under the Chinese government than ours, by all means, go ahead (only don’t publicly say anything about them killing citizens or they will kill you – small price to pay for a government that responds so well to COVID). Incidentally, to say the US government is more absurd than the Xi re-election comment. Why? Well, first, the government doesn’t force anyone to be a doctor nor does it dictate the hours they work or the area of medicine they enter. Also, don’t you think ANY responsibility lies on individuals to wear masks, not go out of they feel sick, follow the fairly simple health guidelines, etc? Are you suggesting we start throwing people in jail or fining them immensely every time they break a rule? Let me guess, you’re someone who thinks violent criminals shouldn’t be held without bail, but someone who doesn’t wear a mask should be locked up with no trial. The US has plenty of rather sever rules in place curtailing travel, but people break them…what do you suggest the government do that it isn’t already? Are you that ignorant of what some states are doing – CA has had stay-at-home orders, restaurants closed, kids can’t go to school. You know, other countries all over the world are going through the same thing – why is there an expectation that the US should have had this eradicated when basically no other industrialized country has been able to? You don’t think extreme rules would make everyone miserable? You don’t even know if China has accomplished much more than the US with their communist dictatorship because that dictatorship controls the message. US government is killing its people…lol…yeah it’s so awful living here when there are all these great countries out there with 0 cases and 0 deaths where everyone is free to do whatever they want

  11. I am an American working in China and consider myself lucky to be here right now as life is close to normal and in general there is a strong confidence amongst my company staff that the China government will do whatever it takes to keep the virus under control. This has been proven out several times where even a handful of new cases in a locality results quickly in extensive contact tracing, thousands (or millions) of people being tested and near 100% compliance with mask wearing.
    In a time of a deadly pandemic, no one is wasting time discussing politics while larger public health issues loom.

  12. @FFFlier1976

    Actually there are several economies who have done a better job controlling covid (besides Mainland China) than the U.S. like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, etc. So it is no excuse to say because no one else can control the virus, the U.S. cannot control the virus. It is possible just requires strong leadership (not stable genius leadership).

  13. @the-expat don’t forget that Australia and New Zealand are both democracies with western values and they have beaten COVID too. They’re just not wussies and people buckled up instead of whining about “LIBERATING” states and other similar complete idiocies that took place in the U.S.

  14. The flying activities in OAG are generally accurate. There’s been a government order to reduce domestic travel since about early January – you won’t find it in English language media but everyone in China is well aware of it. There was a fairly significant outbreak in Hebei province not far from Beijing, reporting a few hundred cases a day. It has since died down a bit as the whole province entered into a hard lockdown.

    Gov has instructed employers to give cash incentives for people to stay where they are for Chinese New Year. State owned employers are denying leave requests and many provinces now require PCR test for domestic arrivals during the CNY period. Someone in gov has decided they don’t want to risk further outbreaks from CNY travel so that’s why this has happened.

  15. Gary, you have some decent travel stuff on your blog but your lack of understanding China and willingness to criticize it is getting tiresome. Facts are needed not random guesses that you spout about.

    Fact 1: China’s domestic aviation market largely normalized from last summer. My employees are flying everywhere.

    Fact 2: January saw a re-emergence of Covid (since contained) in Hebei, Heilongjiang and Shanghai. In the run up to Chinese New Year where hundreds of millions of Chinese travel. The government thus strongly recommended people don’t travel. Many areas required covid tests or even home quarantine.

    Schools forbade families from traveling and local governments worked with companies to give bonuses to people who don’t return home.

    The measures run from January 28 until March 8.

    Thus flights and hotel bookings have collapsed from late January until March. I was at a hotel that was 20% occupied after everyone cancelled last minute. The government forced all airlines to give 100% refunds.

    These are the facts Gary. It’s been tiring reading your blog’s China related stuff the last year. Always negative and without facts

    Shame on you

  16. @Joe Covid re-emergence in Shanghai? Where there have been a cumulative total of 7 deaths and there has never been a Wuhan, much less a prolonged US/Spain/Italy/UK style lockdown? Sounds grim!

    @Jake “Don’t forget that NZ and Australia are western democracies?” You mean used to be western democracies and are now authoritarian nations run by strongmen (or strongwomen) run by diktat without any rule of law or redress for abuses and the constant violations of basic human rights laws. NZ once had a claim to be the freest place in the world, but those days are long gone.

    @FFFlier1976 The fact that you find it incredible that anybody might prefer living in China today demonstrates to me that you fail to appreciate the plight of those living in the USA. To be sure, the USA has a far higher degree of political freedom, and continues to despite the fact that basic rights to political speech have never been more at risk, and the withering of political institutions such that we’re now all governed by Executive “emergency” orders rather than fully debated legislative laws. But Chinese are freer today in almost every other way. While Americans live from lockdown Order to lockdown Order, can’t run their businesses, can’t educate their children, can’t work, can’t pray, can’t eat in restaurants, drink in bars, can’t see their kids get married or properly bury their parents, etc., etc., while almost all Chinese have been and continue to do all these things — all while paying an amount of taxes that would make the most strident members of the CCP blanch. I would certainly prefer to live today as a free person (ex-political rights) in Shanghai, than as an obedient serf in any Northeastern or West Coast City in the USA. It’s well past time that Americans — like Australians and New Zealanders and Italians and Spaniards and UK — are no longer free, while in China people do more or less as they please and lead much more full lives than any of us. Let’s try and stop being pollyannas about it.

  17. ex-pat – some great examples of countries that are controlling the virus…Taiwan an island with one international airport, less than 1/12 the population of the US, 300 times smaller and a homogeneous population centered a just a few places (LA alone has more people than all of Taiwan). Great comparison. Hong Kong, while more international, about 600 times smaller than the US has about 40X smaller (homogeneous population) – yes, a very equal comparison to a place has the exact same dynamics as the US…Australia, I wouldn’t say they have ‘beaten’ it…are there 0 cases? No. What did they do, pretty much completely isolated themselves – that would work very well for the US because like Australia. Although our population density is only 30X higher than Australia’s it should be very easy for us to mimic the way they control their population because they have similar western values.

    You want a population you can control like China – here’s the solution – let’s limit our country to one race that shares the same set of values, has a long history in this land and believes that their actions server a greater long term good. Oh also, we have to give the government more power to just do what they want without any real consequences of losing their jobs if they’re wrong and they have to be able to punish citizens who openly disagree to maintain that control.

    Locking everyone in their houses for 6 months and destroying our economy may have worked to eliminate the virus, but we still would have to close our borders for potentially years because other countries can’t control it. I firmly believe that the price we are paying to save the lives of people who are mostly old or already sick is far too great (nobody can dispute the bias of who the virus kills by age or pre-existing condition)…the biggest price is education. We will now have a group of children that will be know as the dumbest generation. You know who will be even more adversely effected by this, the most underprivileged of our society who don’t have access to even descent on-line learning capabilities. The year and a half of education lost can never be recovered by those children – we traded their futures so someone 75+ or some fat American with diabetes has a little less risk of dying. Not to mention increases in domestic violence, alcoholism etc…

    Everyone who is dissatisfied with how the US is handling this is free to move to Taiwan or HK or Australia. This isn’t at all about politics – the Ds and the Rs are all idiots who will say and do whatever they can to get a vote with little regard for anything other than themselves. As far as the voting public, even dumber than the politicians regardless of party. Do you want a government that dictates what you have to do lest there be strict consequences or do you want one that give people the freedom to be stupid. There’s isn’t much of a middle ground and in a country as diverse as the US the former is nearly impossible. Love it or leave it.

    Ex-Pat – back to Hong Kong, look of the HK flu of the late 60’s…how do you explain us getting through that?

  18. @FFFlier1976 That’s quite a rant. The more you write the more your ignorance shines through. Wow.

  19. please tell me where I’m wrong…if I call you ignorant I’ll at least give examples of why.

  20. Actually, I’ll help guide you…so I’m ignorant because Taiwan and Australia are good comparisons to the US? Is it that the US should be able to function exactly as China with its homogeneous population of a billion+ and gov’t with absolute power? Is it that the virus is biased to certain demographics? Let me know which part shows ignorance and I’ll be happy to concede you’re right

  21. @the-sexpat – Here, fixed it for you –
    “In a time of a deadly pandemic, no one is wasting time discussing politics and human rights while larger public health issues loom.”

  22. @Dave Are you unaware that Churches, Synagogues, and Mosques have been closed in many states across the USA since April? In these same states you can go to a liquor store or go to Walmart but you may not gather inside a place of worship to pray.

    If you care to google Roman Catholic Diocese of New York v. Cuomo or Agudath Israel of America v. Cuomo, you will be able to educate yourself about these outrages.

  23. @FFFlier1976 I will decline. I think you made your status clear by couching the debate as “Do you want a government that dictates what you have to do lest there be strict consequences or do you want one that give people the freedom to be stupid.”

  24. I dunno why Gary goes out of his way to be so anti-China all the time, with statements such as “@yiran – Chinese domestic are traffic has been consistently collapsing, and has fallen about 50%. This isn’t a one week phenomenon.”

    Meanwhile WSJ reports domestic Chinese air travel is up 124% since a year ago.
    This is what I see as an expat working in Shanghai as well- planes are full and travel is the same as before Covid. I like this blog, but the extra heaps of anti-China editorializing are unnecessary and takes away from what I previously considered to be an objective reporting platform.

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