China’s domestic air travel bounces back

Domestic air travel in China, which has been recovering slowly in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, has now reached more than 50 per cent of 2019 volumes, based on issued air tickets, according to data from ForwardKeys.

In addition, analysis of flight ticketing data reveals a significant uptick in last-minute domestic flight bookings in China between May 11 and May 21. During that period, the lead time between ticketing and travel shortened dramatically; 72 per cent of flight tickets were issued within four days of the travel date, compared with 51 per cent at the equivalent point in 2019.

Chinese domestic air travel breaks the 50 per cent barrier: ForwardKeys

ForwardKeys believed that this phenomenon is significantly influenced by students returning to university, as the timing coincides with universities reopening – a milestone that is expected to stimulate Chinese consumers to travel more.

Looking back to the start of 2020, air travel surged in the first three weeks of January, thanks to Chinese New Year. However, the Covid-19 outbreak spoiled the party, and by mid-February, the aviation market in China had all but collapsed.

Recovery began in the last week of that month, with passenger traffic jumping 62.9 per cent (all be it from a very low base), coinciding with a weak restart of the economy and an increase in seat capacity. Throughout March and April, air travel continued to pick up slowly, until it received a fillip from the Labour Day holiday at the start of May.

While all this sounds encouraging, it is likely that a stronger recovery is underway in the hospitality sector, with many people choosing to drive or take the high-speed train rather than fly.

According to the Travel Willingness Survey conducted by China Tourism Academy and China’s OTA Ctrip in March, 41 per cent of travellers said that they would travel by car once the coronavirus outbreak had been contained, 29 per cent would travel by train, 16 per cent would take a coach trip and only 14 per cent would fly.

Furthermore, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism has reported that 60 per cent of vacationers travelled by car during the Labour Day holiday period. This hypothesis is further supported by reports of hotel occupancy now exceeding 60 per cent.

Despite the rosy outlook, the revival needs to be kept in perspective, as at the moment the business is mostly local; and, typically, the shorter the distance people travel, the less they tend to spend, said ForwardKeys.

As of now, group travel between provinces is still prohibited, but comment on various Chinese social media platforms predicts that the ban will be lifted in June, although there is no official news yet.

Olivier Ponti, vice president insights, ForwardKeys, said: “At the end of April, we were expecting to see an increase in domestic flight bookings as soon as domestic travel restrictions were eased – and that indeed happened. Nevertheless, some restrictions are still in place, so there is potential for further recovery when they are also removed.

“With regards to international travel, current strict restriction which limits 134 flights a week is due to be eased in the coming months, according to China’s aviation authority’s statement on May 27. However, at this stage, the increased capacity is mainly intended to accommodate the demand of overseas Chinese to return home. I regret that there is no sign yet of a recovery in Chinese outbound tourism.”

He concluded: “I expect 2020 to be the year of the staycation for two principal reasons. First, in China (and in other countries too), the rules applying to international travel are continuously changing, which inhibits consumers from planning and booking a vacation abroad. Second, people are generally reluctant to give up on a holiday, so if a domestic break is all they can get, many will settle for that.”

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