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China’s International Flight Recovery Falling Behind Expectations
On March 2, China’s international flights exceeded 500 flights for the first time in three years. Since the pandemic, China has adopted harsh quarantine requirements for all international travelers, and such measures were just released two months ago on January 8. Since then, the public expected an expeditious recovery of China’s international flights. However, after two months, the total international flights still only account for less than 10% of what it was in 2019, despite the 500% growth compared to the same time in 2022.
Over the past two months, the majority of China’s international flight resumption has been focusing on short-haul flights with destinations in Southeast Asia. In late March, when the summer-fall season of flight schedule commences, more flights to the Middle East and Europe will resume. However, the flights are still considerably fewer than they were in 2019.
On Europe routes, traditional mainlines such as Beijing to Frankfurt will increase to 10 flights per week, with 7 Lufthansa flights and 3 Air China flights. Back in 2019, 28 weekly flights were operated between two cities. Similar stories are observed among flights connecting other major European cities such as Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, and London.
On North American routes, no advancements have been made as the authorities from both sides of the Pacific reached an impasse regarding adding flights between the countries. Currently, 24 weekly flights are operated between China and US, and 10 weekly flights are operated between China and Canada. For the past three years, North American carriers were leveraging Seoul as the technical stop, so that the crews can avoid laying over in China under the quarantine requirement. At this moment, all US carriers have canceled the technical stops in Seoul for their flights, as their crews can now lay over in China without any quarantine.
Destinations in Australia and New Zealand are also expecting more flights from China. Though not as much as they were before the pandemic, now there will be daily flights connecting China to destinations in Oceania, some of which to multiple Chinese cities. Flights to China and Africa are not recovering as quickly as in other regions, and so far the connection between China and the continent is largely relying on transiting through the Middle East.
Several Competing Factors
When it comes to resuming international flights, the game between different authorities can get complex. Different calculations, including epidemic control, slot availability, and even political factors, are in play when it comes to flight resumption.
For Asian countries, their connections to China are considered important, as they may have more economic ties and immediate interests with China than countries not in the region. Korea, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and Thailand all announced ambitious plans to resume flights from China. Korea is even planning to resume flights to China back to 608 flights per week soon, the same level it was in 2019.
As for Europe, authorities are more cautious when resuming flights to China. European authorities are concerned that, as Russian airspace is closed for most of the European carriers, Chinese carriers may have an advantage for flights between China and Europe. So far, a relatively conservative resumption plan is in place to slowly retain connections between firsttier Chinese cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, as a priority. The situation that even second-tier Chinese cities are connected to Europe may need to wait for a longer time to reappear.
As for North America, countries have the same concerns as the Europeans. As the atmosphere between China and US is still intense, the authorities are still reluctant to approve any applications for new routes. As of this moment, Chinese carriers and US carriers each have 12 weekly slots between the two countries, and will likely maintain this level until May or even further.
Additionally, as Chinese flights were disappearing for the last three years, flights between North America and Europe have been thriving. Airport slots have been occupied by those newly opened transatlantic routes, and it would be hard for Chinese carriers to reacquire available slots for them to operate at European airports.
As the country finally reopens to international travelers, the public is expecting more opportunities to travel between China and the rest of the world. However, the world now is a lot different than it was before the pandemic, and it is still uncertain when will international flights in and out of China will be fully resumed.
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