Features
China's civil aviation is returning to life
By Tao Xing  ·  2023-01-18  ·   Source: NO.4 JANUARY 26, 2023
An airplane departs from Meilan International Airport in Haikou, Hainan Province, on January 7 (XINHUA)

After nearly three years of suspension since March 14, 2020 due to COVID-19, international flights began resuming operation at Beijing Daxing International Airport (BDIA) from January 17.

BDIA was put into operation in September 2019 to relieve the flight pressure at Beijing Capital International Airport. But months later, the pandemic led to a sharp decline in international travel and then all international flights to and from Beijing were left to be handled only by the older airport.

BDIA's reopening to international flights is a sign indicating the recovery of the aviation industry.

China has removed all quarantine requirements for inbound passengers since January 8, and introduced policies to facilitate the resumption of international flights, which is boosting demand for inbound and outbound travel. In addition, the country has also ended the requirement for travelers to quarantine upon arrival in destination cities and to present their health status before entering attractions and entertainment venues since last December.

The general public has responded to the policy changes with enthusiasm. After these new policies were released, searches for plane tickets have soared in recent days.

Many airlines, both domestic and foreign, are formulating new flight schedules to catch the opportunities in China's aviation market. China United Airlines (CUA), a budget carrier headquartered in Beijing and a subsidiary of China Eastern Airlines, has resumed 109 of its flight routes, covering many popular destinations. "We will fully meet the travel needs of our customers," a representative of CUA told Beijing Review.

Gear up to rebound

International flights have been severely disrupted by the pandemic and the ensuing measures to control it. According to data from DAST, a transport data analysis platform, from June 2020 to July 2022, 1,963 inbound flights were cancelled due to the "circuit breaker mechanism." The mechanism means if there were more than a certain number of COVID-19 cases on international flights that arrive in China, that route would be suspended for a certain period of time.

Last year was even worse, the data showed, with as many as 1,247 inbound flights suspended or restricted from January to the end of July, accounting for about 63.5 percent of the total inbound flights suspended or restricted during the pandemic.

"People's demand for air travel also decreased in recent years," Su Yiming, a business manager who works at an airport, told Beijing Review.

At a national civil aviation conference on January 6, Song Zhiyong, head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), said 250 million passenger trips were handled and about 6.08 million tons of cargo and mail were transported by air last year, which was only 46.3 percent of the pre-pandemic level.

The civil aviation industry hit a low in 2022, with an overall loss of 216 billion yuan ($32 billion), Song said, adding that the cumulative loss across the entire industry since the beginning of the epidemic is expected to reach 400 billion yuan ($59.3 billion). The industry had been profitable for 11 consecutive years before the pandemic.

China built or relocated eight airports in 2022, lifting the total number of cargo airports to 254 and general airports to 399, according to Song. The sector aims to break even amid a solid recovery this year and is expected to rebound to around 75 percent of its pre-pandemic level in 2023, he said.

Increased market

In recent days, the Spring Festival travel rush, also known as chunyun, which lasts from January 7 to February 15 this year, is bringing a surge in demand. Airlines have stepped up efforts in expanding their transport capacity.

According to the Global Times, China Eastern Airlines plans to allocate 753 aircraft for the travel rush, with an average of more than 2,900 planned daily flights, and the planned passenger seat kilometers returning to 87 percent of the pre-pandemic level in 2019.

CUA has also made thorough preparation for the surge in demand, expecting to handle 800,000 domestic passengers trips to and from BDIA during this year's travel rush. "Besides, an average of 150 flights have been scheduled by CUA per day nationwide for the travel rush, which is equivalent to the same period in 2019," the airline said.

Besides, many people in China are also planning their travel. Mohammed Kpannah Fahnbulleh, a Liberian student at the Qilu University of Technology in Jinan, Shandong Province, told Beijing Review that he has not been home in four years because of the COVID-19 situation.

"I have lots of plans to travel. My first travel plan: I want to go to Shanghai and then maybe go back to my country to see my family and then come back to complete my education," Fahnbulleh said.

On January 9, a 70-year-old Beijinger surnamed Li came to the Exit-Entry Reception Hall of Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau (BMPSB) in Dongcheng District of the capital city to renew his passport. "My passport expired last year. I heard that the policy has shifted lately in light of the current situation, so I came today to update my passport so I can visit my nephew abroad," he told Beijing Review.

According to the Exit-Entry Administration Department of BMPSB, there was a significant increase in the number of applicants for exit and entry services on January 9, the first workday after China lifted quarantine requirements for inbound travelers.

Upgrading services

Airports and airlines are busy upgrading their services and products to improve customers' travel experience.

In recent years, major progress has been achieved in building a smart civil aviation industry. For example, according to the CAAC, 234 airports offer paperless transit by introducing e-boarding and e-security checks, allowing identity cardholders to travel with only their identity cards and eliminating the need for conventional paper boarding passes.

During the chunyun, BDIA is optimizing the allocation of transportation resources and adjusting the frequency of airport buses according to flights and passenger volume. For example, they added two bus routes from other regions of Beijing to the airport, according to an article on BDIA's social media on January 7.

Additionally, nearly 200 stores in the airport are maintaining normal operations with adequate products. The airport also regulates the quality and price to create a safe and secure shopping and dining environment for passengers, the article read.

"This year, BDIA, in association with domestic and foreign airlines, will continue to increase the recovery and expansion of international routes, to promote the development of this world-class international hub airport," the article said.

CUA has offered some incentives to promote its services and products to the general public in the travel season, such as providing group tickets, preferential tickets and launching a lucky draw activity. Additionally, they provide free reading materials to passengers during flights.

"The new rules bring hope to China's aviation sector, which will also contribute to the faster recovery of the world aviation market," Su concluded. 

(Print Edition Title: Taking Off Again)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

Comments to taoxing@cicgamericas.com

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