China’s aviation industry was the first to navigate the pandemic. Its journey offers hope, even if only from within its own borders.
Air travel in China, where COVID-19 was first detected, is seeing brighter days. Ahead of the country’s Labour Day holiday in early May, China Eastern Airlines announced plans to resume 70 to 80 percent of flights by the end of June, making it – albeit perhaps only for a fleeting time – the world’s largest carrier by seats. In the first week of May, air traffic across the country had rebounded to over 8,000 flights daily, representing a four-month high and about 65 percent of what it had been mid-January, according to data from Airsavvi.
Until the holiday, China’s lifting of restrictions had been gradual and uneven. Trunk routes by domestic carriers showed recovery in mid-April, with Shanghai-Shenzhen, for example, up to 60 daily flights, compared to 100 pre-COVID-19, and Guangzhou-Hangzhou at 45, compared to 60 before. However, flights to and from Beijing remained an exception, with the key Beijing-Shanghai route only having 20 flights from a previous 110. There were even fewer to Beijing from other major cities like Chengdu and Shenzhen.
The reason? Beijing in April still required a 14-day quarantine for domestic arrivals. “It’s definitely more conservative,” according to China Aviation Valuation Advisors chairman David Yu, also an adjunct professor at New York University’s Shanghai campus. Restrictions, like having travelers self-isolate upon arrival, may help people feel safe but can also have the inverse effect, Yu says: “Quarantine makes people weary. But over time, restrictions will decrease as you see nothing bad happens.”
Indeed, the May surge in domestic travel was propelled by a waning number of coronavirus cases and relaxed rules on travel and quarantining. Days before the holiday, authorities downgraded the emergency response level of Beijing, allowing locals to leave the city and travelers from around the country to visit the capital without having to undergo the two weeks of home isolation. Within a half hour of the announcement, flight bookings in Beijing spiked to 15 times of previous levels, reports the Chinese travel booking app Qunar.
Of course, so much of the airline industry’s recovery depends on the vagaries of the virus and its human carriers, but early measures taken by Chinese aviation authorities in response to COVID-19, which sought to minimize impact while preserving long-term passenger confidence in air travel safety, may have helped. In February, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) wrote on its website that it would adopt a three-pronged approach of being “serious, scientific and calm,” and shortly after published a piece containing insight and advice from experts from the Civil Aviation Medicine Center.
“Quarantine makes people weary. But over time, restrictions will decrease as you see nothing bad happens.” €” David Yu, NYU Shanghai
Passengers were advised to choose a window seat when possible, to minimize contact with high-touch surfaces, such as armrests and tray tables, and to not use lavatories since cleaning and disinfection could not be carried out during flight. Meanwhile, airlines adapted catering menus and service protocols to minimize contact, in addition to only using disposable tableware, and removing pillows, blankets, magazines and seatback pocket inserts altogether. Airports were directed to regularly clean passenger contact areas, and ground crew were to increase the frequency of aircraft sanitization. The CAAC also included instructions for the flying public, such as asking passengers to wear masks, refrain from touching their face and avoid travel if feeling unwell. Many of these same measures would later surface in other markets, with airlines around the world releasing videos and posters showing cleaning practices and replacing trolley services with snack bags.
As new domestic cases in China dwindled, a new problem emerged: imported cases. In response, the CAAC has devised a threat scoring system for flights, based on duration, load factor and the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the flight’s departure country. It has also put a cap on the number of flights airlines around the world may operate to China for the foreseeable future, which is being met with some pushback from airlines in the US. There’s no telling what form international travel will take in the long run, nor when Chinese domestic air travel will return to full-fledged pre-pandemic health. After all, a lot can change in
a couple of months.
“Road to Recovery” was originally published in the 10.3 June/July issue of APEX Experience magazine.