Data From China Shows Air Travel Won’t Recover Quickly

Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus began in China, the country is well ahead of the rest of the world in dealing with it. Though they officially defeated the virus, there were reasons to be skeptical it had been eradicated completely.

For instance neighborhoods were paid for reporting zero new cases. Now they’re facing new cases near their border with Russia and North Korea and they’re working on testing all 11 million residents of Wuhan over the course of 10 days. In contrast the U.S. has tested just shy of 10 million people in total.

According to China’s aviation regulator air travel declined,

  • 71.7% year-over-year in March
  • 68.5% year-over-year in April

China officially ‘re-opened’ in early March. Even Wuhan’s airport re-started flights April 8. Recovery has not come quickly, with travel still down substantially and April barely better than March.

Travel isn’t returning quickly to China, and if you want to see what two months into our future looks like the Chinese experience is certainly one clue. So is the risk of continued flare ups in the virus, which will scare people even further away from flying.

Cases of COVID-19 have stabilized in much of the world (excluding places including Russia, Brazil and India). Not everywhere has social distanced to the same extent, but exponential spread has broadly ceased. Perhaps that means super spreaders have been infected and some distancing measures get the reproduction number down to about 1.

However the virus continues to spread, and lockdowns in the U.S. won’t stop that. So the advisability of the most extreme measures for all but the most vulnerable of populations rests of how close a vaccine or cure seems. If it’s close, lockdowns can make sense. If it’s not then lockdowns won’t reduce the number of poeple who ultimately contract the virus and won’t lead to materially better outcomes.

We may be able to travel again, but that doesn’t mean many people will quickly. And that’s bad news for U.S. airlines who are cutting costs and loading up on debt. They should make it through 2020 intact, but unless they start seeing revenue growth 2021 may be another story. Watching air travel recovery in places like China, South Korea, and Taiwan that have done the best battling the virus will be one clue. Another will be watching the recovery of air travel in places where the virus is merely mitigated.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. The Reuters source for your China passenger numbers doesn’t give a reliable source either. No one knows what this data includes or excludes.

  2. Jose. . .you took the words right out of my mouth. The Chinese dictatorship (as does all dictatorships) just lies and lies and lies. How many lives could have been saved if we knew the truth before Europe and the USA (especially NYC metro) had to suffer. While we have our own problems with leadership in this country, let’s not forget where this started.

  3. China is ” testing all 11 million residents of Wuhan over 10 days.”

    That sounds like CCP propaganda to me. What are the odds they have 11 million working tests, ability to test 11 million people, and capacity to get results on 11 million tests? Not holding my breath.

    Also, didn’t we already establish that the CCP cannot be trusted for anything Covid19 related?

  4. @B:

    “That sounds like CCP propaganda to me. What are the odds they have 11 million working tests, ability to test 11 million people, and capacity to get results on 11 million tests? Not holding my breath.”

    The CCP and Chinese government can and will marshall forces to go to extreme measures to do what has to be done. Witness the building of a hospital in 10 days.

    Right now it is crucial to China that it be first gobally in prevention, detection, and cure. Why? Ask any student of Sino study–it’s all about ‘face’.

  5. Another in a string of good post Gary. Flights, unlike the other stuff in China, are quantifiable, so very interesting data points.

    My personal opinion is that we are going to see a small burst of flight reservations in the next few weeks followed by a “double-dip”, the result of an eviscerated global economy. So dovetails with your datapoint.

  6. Question is, is this domestic air travel or *all*? As many counties are still not allowing folks to come into their borders, even if China has opened back up their airports, they don’t have control over to where they can fly, so it is not truly reflective of what it would look like as we have a greater global easing of travel restrictions and border openings.

  7. @AAB It is overall air travel.

    April is taken as example: the figures for April 2019 and April 2020 aviation passengers are as follows:

    April 2019 total 53.118 M
    April 2019 domestic + HK/Macau/Taiwan 47.038 M
    April 2019 international 6.08 M
    April 2020 total 16.715 M

    I do not know the breakdown for April 2020 passenger numbers. Even though international flights dropped drastically (less than 20 inbound flights per day, currently), domestic passenger volume decline still makes great contribution to the overall decline, because the ‘base’ of int’l flights has been relatively small even before this January.

    If we give international flight passenger figure a ‘0’, then domestic passengers dropped 64.5% y-o-y in April, instead of 68.5%.

    So far, detailed data is published up to February 2020 in the following page.
    http://www.caac.gov.cn/XXGK/XXGK/TJSJ/index_1215.html

  8. Some good take:
    Domestic passengers dropped 84.8% y-o-y in Feb 2020, so April could be seen as ‘recovering in progress’.

  9. @AAB It is overall air travel.

    April is taken as example: the figures for April 2019 and April 2020 aviation passengers are as follows:

    April 2019 total 53.118 M
    April 2019 domestic + HK/Macau/Taiwan 47.038 M
    April 2019 international 6.08 M
    April 2020 total 16.715 M

    I do not know the breakdown for April 2020 passenger numbers. Even though international flights dropped drastically (less than 20 inbound flights per day, currently), domestic passenger volume decline still makes great contribution to the overall decline, because the ‘base’ of int’l flights has been relatively small even before this January.

    If we give international flight passenger figure a ‘0’, then domestic passengers dropped 64.5% y-o-y in April, instead of 68.5%.

  10. Thank you Gary; that’s great data. And there’s no reason for it to be faked downwards; if anything, if they’re going to lie upwards to make it look like they’re doing better.

    It’s sad to see the comments here repeating the Trump propaganda without a shred of critical thinking or evidence. I am not defending the CCP, which I hate, but plenty of countries acted promptly based on the same exact data the U.S.A. had access to (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore) and saved hundreds of thousand of lives. If the US is so far superior to any other country in the world, it should have done a far better job than those countries. But of course those who care to go back and look at time-dated evidence know the truth. And the amount of lying contained in COVID-19 reporting from the USA is amazing (no, people don’t die less on weekends, and dying outside of a hospital is still dying).

  11. I’m not sure how fast air travel will recover in the USA. I do know that it won’t be anything like what’s happen in China for about a zillion reasons. I’ll give you the big one first: our society is not very similar to China’s. We will behave differently.
    I am encouraged by the recent material uptick in enplanements. I am also encouraged that the reopening of our country is now moving FAST — much faster than many of our elites in a few urban centers think it is. And as people better understand the virus and its risks (or lack thereof — this is primarily a disease of the sick and elderly), the reopening will accelerate.

  12. Whether or not the recent of experience of China is relevant, I think the headline is correct that “air travel won’t recover quickly.” There are too many people like me who are simply not willing to get into an aircraft while the virus is still widespread. I usually fly a lot, but I don’t see myself flying next until 2021 or 2022.

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