Only airlines can show the huge scale of China’s coronavirus crisis

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Chinese New Year is the largest annual period of transport stress in the world. Beginning fifteen days ahead of Lunar New Year and lasting for a total of 40, Chinese travellers made around three billion trips during 2018’s rush. To ring in the year of Rat on January 25, airports expected a travel surge between January 10 and February 18, as Chinese people living abroad return home to see their families. They were wrong.

New figures show that flight numbers have crashed from 17,181 flights on January 22, the day before the announcement of Wuhan’s coronavirus quarantine, to just 5,095 by February 4, figures from flight tracking company FlightRadar24 show.

This has been no ordinary beginning to the year. Since the announcement of the coronavirus outbreak on 31 December 2019, over 50 million people have been quarantined in more than 15 cities. This is a serious blow to China’s economy – in 2018 alone, 62.9 million tourists visited China, and tourism makes up about 11 per cent of the country’s economic growth. In one week last month, the country’s second largest operator, China Eastern Airlines, saw its value fall by 13 per cent.

FlightRadar24 figures show internal and external Chinese flights dropping by more than two thirds. Major airports have been abandoned as commuters avoid public spaces.

Ian Petchenik, a spokesperson at FlightRadar24, says that the reduction between January 21 and 28 was mainly down to restrictions in international flights. After January 28, a massive fall crippled domestic travel as well.

On December 31, the date of the first announcement, there was little change in flight behaviour – 15,574 flights were recorded on that day and 15,362 on the first day of 2020. By January 22, the day before quarantine, total flights had risen to 17,181. Then, panic set in. A significant drop off – 14,195 on January 25 – started as the number of cities in Hubei placed under quarantine reached 15. From January 27 onwards, as the entire Hubei province entered quarantine, the temporary collapse of China’s aviation industry took hold.

This is also when international and domestic flights started shutting down. On January 29, British Airways became the first major airline to cancel all flights to mainland China. Many other international airlines, including Air Canada, the Lufthansa Group, United Airlines and Delta Airlines have restricted or suspended travel.

By the February 2, as the city of Wenzhou in the Zhejiang also implemented a partial lockdown, the number of flights had spiralled down to 7,961. Last week, as two more cities restricted the movement of a further 12 million people, it dropped to 5,095.

Some of the busiest airports in China are located in provinces that are among those most affected by the coronavirus. The scale of the crisis becomes clearer if you track specific airports. The first airport to be shut down, Wuhan Tianhe International Airport, is by far the biggest airport in Hubei. It is the busiest airport in central China, and the sixteenth biggest in China overall. According to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), it was used by 24,500,356 passengers in 2018 and carried out 187,699 flights.

In the days before the quarantine, 614 flights took off. On the January 24, the day after the quarantine, only seven flights came out of Wuhan and only 39 came in. By January 25, only 13 came out and 11 in – leaving the once bustling airport effectively dormant.

As an article from Airport Technology outlines, the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport is the third busiest in China – it handled 35.64 million passengers in the first half of 2019 and is located in Guangzhou city, which is the second most-affected province in China. FlightRadar24 data shows that between January 22 and February 4, there was a drop off in flights of more than two thirds, from 1,666 to 555.

The Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport is located in the capital of Zhejiang province in east China – the third most-affected province. Passenger traffic was more than 40 million in 2019. But, according to the FlightRadar24 data, flights fell from 877 on January 22 to 160 on February 4.

Also significant to the drop off in domestic rates are massive reductions in flights in China’s three busiest airports – Beijing Capital, Shanghai Pudong and Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. In Beijing Capital, the busiest airport by passenger traffic in China and the second busiest airport in the world with 100 million annual passengers in 2018, flight numbers have tumbled in just over a week, from 1,837 on January 22 to 672 on February 4.

But there are more woes ahead for the biggest players in China’s airspace.

The CAAC announced last week that airlines should give refunds for cancelled flights, triggering a 13 per cent nosedive in the share prices of the country’s three major airlines, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines and China Air. But with no end in sight, airlines may lose far more than the Chinese New Year.

Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield

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