With flights plummeting, COVID-19 absolutism is isolating China from global travel

Entering the third year of the pandemic, China’s inflexible approach to COVID-19 has seen the world’s second-largest economy almost cut off from international travel – with fewer than 500 inbound flights this week, compared to about 10,000 this time two years ago.

Capacity cuts are intensifying as China tries to eradicate virus flare-ups with aggressive lockdowns.

Since mid-December, airlines have eliminated nearly 1,000 flights that would have arrived in the country between now and February 1, the start of the Lunar New Year — usually the busiest time to travel anywhere in the world.

Despite the difficulty each country faces in containing the Omicron strain, China continues to make efforts to keep the virus at bay. Authorities have blocked dozens of air services to and from the US because passengers on previous flights tested positive for COVID-19 after arrival, escalating tensions between the two countries.

There will also be no bump in incoming traffic for the Winter Olympics from February 4 to 20 in Beijing. China has banned non-resident spectators from participating in what would normally be a surefire draw for tourism with thousands of fans, athletes and journalists flying in. The host of the last Winter Olympics, South Korea, saw a 15% jump in arrivals in 2018 when the event was held.

China is likely to issue special landing permits and special flight permits for the Olympics and then reinstate restrictions on regular flights, said Mark Martin, founder of Dubai-based Martin Consulting LLC.

Reductions from mid-December represent the elimination of about a third of an international flight schedule that had already been reduced by more than 90% from the year before the pandemic.

“We do not expect international travel to and from China to recover to 2019 levels in the next three quarters,” said OAG chief analyst John Grant. The attitude has cost airlines revenue, “mainly because China was one of the fastest-growing markets, with a large number of affluent travelers eager to see the world.”

The number of flights between China and major destinations such as Europe, Japan and North America is now even lower than a year ago.

While long-haul flight worldwide has lagged behind short-haul recovery, other countries have seen more foreign travel recover, especially in the West.

US carriers have reduced 77% of pre-pandemic international capacity, while the UK is about 47%, based on data from flight tracker OAG.

While Singapore and Australia are gradually reopening, foreign arrivals to Asian countries such as Japan remain severely limited.

Hong Kong is following the lead of China and then some, last week banning flights from eight countries, including the US, UK and Australia. As of Sunday, flights from places the government considers high-risk will not even be able to pass through Hong Kong for at least a month. That ruling applies to approximately 150 countries and territories.

China’s toughening approach continues to cut inbound capacity from last year’s levels, a time when many believed the worst of the pandemic was over. Capacity from Southeast Asia has fallen to 124,411 seats for January, compared to 182,182 a year earlier, data from Cirium shows. On the eve of the pandemic, in January 2020, that figure was 6.32 million.

From Europe, capacity has fallen to 107,012 seats from 127,971 last year and 1.49 million in January 2020. North America follows the trend, moving to 34,549 seats from 74,032 in January 2021 and more than 1 million two years ago.

The restrictions also apply to China’s huge domestic aviation market – one of the strongest in the world for most of the crisis, as the government controlled sporadic outbreaks and people were generally able to travel within the country.

Authorities have stepped up measures by shutting down cities such as Tianjin, a major port east of Beijing connecting Chinese manufacturers to the world.

This could pose an even bigger problem for Chinese airlines, as the domestic market – the second largest in the world after the US – has supported about 100,000 flights per week, compared to fewer than 1,000 international trips.

Still, the airline regulator has set ambitious targets, saying Monday it expects 570 million passenger flights this year, compared to 440 million in 2021. That could provide some relief for Air China Ltd., China Southern Airlines Co., China Eastern Airlines Corp. and other domestic operators.

Even without the Olympics, Lunar New Year is typically the busiest time for Chinese airlines. For flights taking place this week, the domestic timetable has been reduced by almost 20% since mid-December.

Carriers have made much smaller cuts for next week and the next two, suggesting they may be lining up for more pain along with hotels, restaurants and other locations as lockdowns continue or worsen.

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