Home AviationAirlines Making a Comeback: Is the Chinese Experience Useful?

Making a Comeback: Is the Chinese Experience Useful?

by David Hopwood

We’re all aware of a few significant facts about commercial aviation. Aircraft don’t make money sitting on the ground. Aircraft seated on the ground lose you money. Therefore when a crisis strikes—such as the terrorist attacks in 2001 and today with COVID-19—owners are very keen to have those assets up and running again. But to have aircraft in the air, with too few passengers might be an even worse option and lose even more cash.

China Southern A380 © kevinmcgill via wikimedia

The question is, of course, when?  The answer is much more complicated, beginning with the virulence of the virus on its human host and running through a series of causes and effects and eventually arriving at some theoretically possible answer to the question whether airline x will recommence flying route y. But that doesn’t seem to be a useful line of enquiry: too many variables—a prime example of chaos theory.

A logical means of prediction at the macro scale—at least nationally if not globally—is to look at how others are faring. Of course, there were lessons to be learned at the start of the epidemic. Still, the commercial air transport business was very keen to stem losses, demand dropped dramatically and the supply—of available seat kilometres—also fell off a cliff.

Since it was the first country to suffer from the consequences of COVID-19 and therefore should be the first to recover, China is the obvious place to look. How steep was the cliff there? The data available from Spire Aviation shows that on 25th January, just before the outbreak took hold, there were 8,937 flights in China. Three months later, on 25th April, there were 4,378—a 51% drop, and this was a marked improvement:  At the worst point, the fall was in the region of 90%.

China Eastern © Flickr Commons

Many countries are in a worse situation than China—and of course, some far better. The Chinese pattern indicated a relatively rapid rebound about two weeks after the worst, then a more modest growth pattern for several months. If this pattern holds for the rest of the world, we may still have to wait another 4-6 weeks before we see a return to traffic of about half that of late January.

And then? Other commentators have said that in the short-term (say, 6-9 months) we can only expect to return to 80% of pre-COVID levels.

Will the Chinese pattern hold? There are several differences between that country and the rest of the world—mostly political. China adheres to a high degree of centralised economic influence, unlike the other massive single market–the US. China has an extensive domestic market, unlike the European, mid-East, and far-East. Chinese authorities are very concerned about the re-introduction of the virus from elsewhere, whereas that level of concern will vary considerably elsewhere.

As a predictive tool, the Chinese data is flawed—but it seems to suggest that we may be approaching something like normality by September this year.

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