China’s air travel “recovery:” volume improving, but revenue still elusive

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By Judson Rollins


May 6, 2021, © Leeham News: In a media briefing this week, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) showed a deep contrast between the airline landscapes in the US and China versus the rest of the world.

The two countries together delivered 55% of the world’s domestic passenger traffic in March, with Chinese domestic capacity approaching 100% of pre-pandemic levels. China’s three largest carriers – Air China, China Eastern Airlines, and China Southern Airlines – are matching their US peers by deploying A350s and 787s on domestic routes, as most international routes to/from China remain closed.

However, first-quarter data continued to paint an ugly picture as unit revenue, or revenue per available seat-kilometer (RASK), was down at every publicly-traded carrier. Some of this was due to reduced load factors in January and February, but a key driver is the ongoing sale of “all you can fly” passes on most Chinese airlines.

  • Domestic load factors have picked up, but international traffic near non-existent.
  • First quarter financial reports show unit revenue fell below even last year’s abysmal levels.
  • “Airpass” promotions continue, but it’s unclear how long they will go on.
  • Fleet utilization during COVID: widebodies down but not out.

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