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

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By Judson Rollins

Introduction 

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.

Summary
  • 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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HOTR: Annual Reports give hint to MAX return in China

By the Leeham News Team

May 4, 2021, © Leeham News: Annual reports from some Chinese airlines give an indication when Boeing can expect to resume deliveries of the 737 MAX there.

China Southern’s report issued this week indicates 48 MAXes will be delivered next year. Another 44 are shown to be delivered the following year. This compares with five A320 series this year and none next year. Only 15 A320s were delivered in 2020.

Five 787s and one 777s are scheduled for delivery to China Southern this year. Four A350s are scheduled for delivery this year and next.

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Boeing cites US-China relations as business watch item in 1Q earnings

April 28, 2021, © Leeham News: Boeing’s first quarter financial results were slightly worse than estimates by Wall Street analysis.

“Boeing reported first-quarter revenue of $15.2bn, primarily driven by lower 787 deliveries and commercial services volume, partially offset by higher 737 deliveries and higher KC-46A Tanker revenue,” the company states in its announcement. “GAAP loss per share of ($0.92) and core loss per share (non-GAAP) of ($1.53) reflect year-over-year KC-46A Tanker improvement, higher 737 deliveries, and lower commercial airplanes period costs, partially offset by lower tax benefits and higher interest expense. Boeing recorded operating cash flow of ($3.4)bn.”

Boeing recorded a charge of $318m for the VC-25B (Air Force One) program. Impacts from COVID-19 and a vendor that Boeing sued (and which counter-sued) are cited as reasons.

Productions rates remain unchanged.

The press release is here.

But buried in the slide presentation for the earnings call at 10:30 EDT is a one line reference that US-China relations are a business environment watch item. Credit Suisse notes this is the first time Boeing has so referenced China in earnings calls.

First reactions to the financial reports and China are below.

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Pontifications: Embraer’s China ambitions

March 22, 2021, © Leeham News: Embraer wants to become a big player in China.

By Scott Hamilton

“We see a huge market potential there,” said Arjan Meijer, CEO of Embraer Commercial Aviation, in an interview with Nikkei Asia. The news outlet continued, “The company expects worldwide demand for 5,500 jets with up to 150 seats over the next 10 years. A third of that will come from Asia, with a large part of it from China, Meijer added.”

However, China presents risks and few rewards to companies wishing to gain a significant foothold. This is especially true for commercial aviation companies. China has high ambitions for the commercial aviation industry. Partnering with China in this sector produced more heartbreak than success.

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China’s hollow airline “recovery”: capacity without revenue

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By Judson Rollins

Introduction 

March 15, 2021, © Leeham News: A flood of media coverage has centered on Chinese airlines’ supposed recovery from COVID-19.

The Chinese “big three,” Air China, China Eastern, and China Southern, made headlines with their rapid restoration of flights and even the announcement of new routes. Industry commentators and industry group IATA trumpeted the “recovery to pre-crisis levels” in China.

New routes garner headlines in normal times, but even more so now. And there is other good news: the US Transportation Security Administration last week processed the highest number of passengers since the pandemic all but shut down traffic a year ago.

But yield quality of such traffic in most markets is problematic. Cheap fares draw leisure travelers, yet business traffic remains a fraction of pre-pandemic levels and there are few signs of near-term recovery. Executives at Lufthansa Group, where business travelers deliver nearly 60% of revenue, said earlier this month they believe such travel will ultimately only return to 80-90% of pre-pandemic levels – and not until mid-decade.

If market analysts want to examine China’s recovery, they have to look at the whole picture. China may be leading the way in capacity restoration, but it’s not the “good” news touted.

The positive trends in China are in mainland domestic flights and seats, not passenger traffic or revenue — and not at all for regional (Hong Kong, Macau) or international routes. Scant attention has been paid to operational data from the country’s airlines – and even its national aviation regulator – showing passenger traffic even on domestic routes is still well below pre-COVID levels.

The “big three’s” third-quarter 2020 financial reports – when the domestic market was supposedly beginning to hit its stride – showed revenue losses far greater than the airlines’ pre-crisis share of revenue from international service. Even those disastrous results included a strong tailwind from increased cargo revenue, as the airlines don’t break out their revenue by business segment outside of annual reports.

LNA dug into the reports of China’s three state-owned airlines, privately held Hainan Airlines, low-cost carrier Spring Airlines, and monthly data releases from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). Much of this data is only published in Mandarin, or in English only after long delays, so we enlisted translation help to build a more complete picture.

Summary
  • Capacity is (mostly) back, but passenger volumes haven’t followed.
  • Desperate sales promotions are widespread among Chinese carriers.
  • Third quarter 2020 financial reports show grave revenue losses.
  • Fourth quarter traffic isn’t materially better – and early 2021 is worse.
  • Continued excess capacity appears to be driven by politics, not demand.

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Podcast: 10 Minutes About China’s Commercial Aviation Industry

Jan. 19, 2021, © Leeham News: Today’s edition is 10 Minutes About China’s commercial aviation industry.

China has one airliner in service, a second in flight testing and a third on the drawing board. Production is still a challenge.

We discuss how viable the airliners are and a bit about production–all in 10 minutes.

Outlook 2021: Russia and China

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By Bjorn Fehrm

Introduction

Jan. 14, 2021, © Leeham News: China and Russia are both developing a single-aisle domestic airliner in the A320/737 MAX class, a regional turboprop in the ATR 72 class, and is jointly working on an A330neo/787 widebody competing airliner.

While these are similar development programs, the countries are in very different positions in their markets and industries. China is a five times larger market for airliners than Russia, and its airlines are on the way back from COVID riddled passenger numbers. It has the fastest recovery from COVID-19 of any country and its civil airliner industry is on the rise.

Russia on the other hand has a stagnant market, still hit by COVID-19, and its market and industry have become introverted after a decade of flirting with Western markets and technology.

Summary
  • China and Russia drive almost identical civil airliner projects to replace Soviet-era and Western airliners.
  • While similar in their projects, they are different in their markets and state of industries.
  • China is on the way up (albeit from a low state) to eventually compete on the world market, whereas Russia is falling back to a Soviet-style all Russian state-controlled model.

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Pontifications: Outlook 2021 Series begins today

By Scott Hamilton

Jan. 4, 2021, © Leeham News: Beginning today through next week, Leeham News presents its annual Outlook series for the coming year.

We’ve been doing this for years. In recent years, the Outlook reflected continued growth in commercial aviation. The industry had the longest upward tick in the more than three decades I’ve been involved in the sector.

Not this year. As I wrote before the Christmas-New Year’s holiday period, 2020 was the worst year for commercial aviation I’ve ever seen in 41 years.

This year is the beginning of the end of the COVID crisis. Yes, the vaccines began distribution in December, but large spikes in COVID cases began simultaneously and are predicted to climb higher through the first quarter.

Over the coming days, as LNA provides its Outlook for 2021, readers will see what we believe will happen.

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HOTR: Boeing hopes for break in China order drought after electors vote for Biden:

By the Leeham News Team

Nov. 30, 2020, © Leeham News: Boeing hopes the three-year order drought from China may come to an end next month.

The order, according to market intelligence, would be a boost for the slow-selling 777X. It could also mean new orders for the 787. Orders for the latter dropped significantly enough to prompt Boeing’s decision to shutter the Everett 787 production line next year. Production for the 787 will be consolidated in Charleston (SC).

Dec. 14 is when US presidential electors meet to cast their votes for Joe Biden or President Donald Trump, making official the projected winner. Biden won 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232 in projections by all the major media. With almost all votes counted—and in some cases, recounted—Biden has 51.1% of the vote to Trump’s 47.2%. Biden received 80.1m votes to Trump’s 73.9m. The margin was nearly 6.2m.

China hasn’t ordered a Boeing airplane since 2017. Trump launched a trade war with China that escalated several times. He charged, without evidence, that China interfered with the US presidential election.

Boeing hopes for a major order from China as early as December. Included would be a sorely needed order for the 777X. (Shown: Boeing 777-300ER.) Photo source: Boeing.

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Pontifications: The risk of closing China to aerospace suppliers

By Scott Hamilton

Nov. 30, 2020, © Leeham News: The Trump Administration this month indicated it might expand its ban on doing business with certain Chinese companies.

The Administration says the additional companies have ties to the military. Included in the listing is COMAC.

Reuters reported the move Nov. 13.

If the Administration follows through during its remaining lame-duck time in power, and if the new Biden Administration doesn’t reverse or modify the plan, the long-term effect could hurt the US aerospace supply chain.

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