In this story published originally on May 29, 2020, the author shows how China exploited the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen the position of Chinese national air carriers in the global market at the expense of other airlines, notably Delta, United, and American. On Wednesday, June 3, the Trump administration announced it will bar Chinese carriers from flying to the United States after June 16 unless China opens up, thus launching an “airline war” alongside the smoldering trade war. But it's certain that Beijing's dominance of the huge traffic in and out of China, and its preeminence throughout Asia, will continue to grow.
There is no doubt that airliners were the novel coronavirus pandemic’s main vector.
Its first direct breakout into the world (and into the U.S.) was certainly from China, long before its lethality was understood. Epidemiologists have established that the virus was on the move in the central Chinese city of Wuhan by early December at the latest.
Unfortunately, Wuhan’s significance in the planning of China's increasingly modernized and organized infrastructure made it the perfect place for an accelerated spread of the pathogen.
In the last decade, as China gave priority to the development of travel, internal and external, Wuhan was chosen by both the airline and railway industries to become one of a number of super transportation hubs, built with a speed and efficiency that we can only marvel at.
Wuhan sat at the middle of one of the country’s most densely populated and fastest growing regions. As aviation consultants promoted a new Wuhan hub airport as a boost to local industries, as well as to travel, the nation’s railway planners saw and pursued the same prize. They made Wuhan the center of a high-speed rail network, with five main lines radiating from it.
Rapidly increased mobility was a major goal as the Chinese people became more affluent. A risen middle class acquired the means and the taste for travel—becoming, almost overnight, a welcome new wave of business to hoteliers across the globe.
Indeed, China’s demand for air travel nearly quadrupled between 2008 and 2018. By 2019 it was generating 18 percent of the world’s airline passenger traffic, worth $89 billion a year. (The largest region is the European Union and United Kingdom, with 25 percent, worth $169 billion). The eight busiest airports in China together were, in one year, handling far more passengers than the entire population of the United States: a total of more than 482 million.
VIRUSES ON THE MOVE
The situation was very different back when the SARS virus appeared in Guangdong province in southeastern China in late 2002. The explosive growth of Chinese air travel had not yet occurred.
That virus reached Hong Kong in February 2003 and Beijing in April. Hong Kong and Singapore were then the principal airline hubs in the region. From Hong Kong the virus jumped to Singapore, Toronto and Hanoi. In the end there were cases in 26 countries, with a total of 774 deaths, but the outbreak was contained without becoming a pandemic.
Once the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic was clear, domestic air travel in China was curtailed, but never completely shut down. The lowest point was in mid-February, when 3.7 million seats were available on flights inside China in a week. By May 24 the traffic had significantly rebounded, to more than 11 million seats a week. (Previously, reflecting the nation’s planned growth of air travel, China had predicted that between January and April the number of passengers flying per week would reach 16.8 million.)
In the U.S., according to the TSA, the number of passengers flying domestically every week in May averaged around 1.75 million; last year it was 18 million.
The Chinese numbers are tracked by the international aviation data bank, OAG. John Grant, an analyst at OAG, told The Daily Beast: “Domestic demand and capacity is recovering ahead of international capacity around the world. China is in many ways ahead of other markets. Its airlines are fortunate to have such a large domestic market to serve.”
Around 40 airlines operate in China. They are regulated by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the CAAC, and their major shareholder is the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission.
This top-down control gives the Chinese government a far tighter grip on the operations of commercial aviation than is possible in any other country because the CAAC has direct control of the airports, airlines and the allocation of routes.
That power will be decisive now, not only in deciding how fast domestic Chinese air travel recovers, but how fast foreign airlines will be allowed to return to China. And the outcome of these decisions will inevitably be influenced by the increased escalation of rhetoric and threats between China and the U.S.
In fact, China is ideally poised to exploit strategically the situation created by the pandemic.
FROM CRISIS, OPPORTUNITY
Specifically, China now sits like a great octopus straddling the air routes of the Asia Pacific region, giving it an entirely new level of influence on how the future of air travel develops, not only in this region but beyond it.
That will inevitably impact the three major U.S. airlines, United, American and Delta, that have built very profitable routes into the Chinese market. They suspended all their Chinese flights in February and will have to build them again from scratch.
How fast they can do that will be decided by the Chinese aviation authorities, who don’t have to be guided, as the Americans are, by relatively short term market forces. The Chinese can give the green light for their own airlines to start building business again in the Asia Pacific region while restricting the access of U.S. airlines to China, favoring—for example—their national “champions” like China Southern Airlines, already Asia’s largest airline.
And they are nimble. Once they saw that the pandemic had created a huge new demand for air cargo, particularly for their own medical products, the authorities decided to begin building a Chinese equivalent of Fedex, combining more sophisticated ground distribution with a greatly expanded worldwide air cargo fleet.
OAG’s Grant says: “International capacity remains tightly managed in China. Every market in Asia needs Chinese services. Markets in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore all have a high focus on China.”
All of this coincides with an idea first floated by analysts at The Economist, to identify regional “bubbles” where the principal destination countries have dealt well with the virus. (For example, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia.) Inside these zones air travel would be allowed to return to greater frequency faster than in areas, such as North America and Europe, that have been in much greater and deadlier disarray.
One thing is for sure. The future geography of the international airline network soon will be very different. The basic global route map has remained the same since the beginning of the Jet Age 60 years ago, with a strong bias favoring the western airlines who pioneered it. At that time China was virtually a void on the map. Now it's looking more like the center of the world.
With America withdrawing from its world leadership role and into a protectionist trade war, now compounded by China’s repressive actions against Hong Kong, the Chinese overlords have been handed a clear path to drive the future growth and fashion the shape of air travel throughout Asia and the Pacific.