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China Eastern Among First Global Airlines to Pull Jets Out of Mothballs as Domestic Travel Spikes

Madhu Unnikrishnan
March 15th, 2021 at 1:33 PM EDT

China Eastern has returned all its aircraft in storage at its Shanghai base to service as domestic demand in China returns to pre-pandemic levels.

The carrier is back up to operating 2,400 daily flights and is restoring service to several domestic routes, including Beijing-Guangzhou and Beijing-Chengdu, that had been halted due to the pandemic, it said in a statement. It anticipates traffic to rise in the next several months for the Qingming and May Day holidays.

Globally, airlines have mothballed more than 13,700 aircraft since the pandemic began, IATA data show. Few carriers have taken China Eastern’s step of returning pre-pandemic fleets to service.

China’s domestic airline market is recovering, after taking a hit during the Lunar New Year travel period last month. By December 2020, domestic traffic had almost returned to pre-pandemic levels, but new Covid-19 outbreaks in the country prompted the central government to limit travel during the Lunar New Year, usually China’s busiest domestic travel period.

IATA data show domestic China demand in January, the latest month for which the organization has data, was down about 35 percent year-over-year, after being just 8 percent off 2019 levels in December. Air China reported January’s domestic traffic down 35 percent from December.

February data for China’s entire domestic market are not yet available, but China Southern reported its February traffic was down 15 percent from January, reflecting the travel restrictions imposed by the central government. But the carrier reported its capacity so far this year has grown by 4 percent from 2020. The Covid pandemic struck in China first, affecting its airlines earlier than the rest of the world’s. U.S. carriers, for example, only started to report traffic declines in March of last year, with the nadir beginning in April.

Travel restrictions around the world have kept most Chinese tourists at home, and this is reflected in the Big Three’s international traffic, which remains far below 2019 and early 2020 numbers. Air China reported its January international traffic was 98 percent down from the same month in 2020. China Southern’s February international traffic shows some modest improvement, down 78 percent compared with 2020. China Eastern’s January international traffic was down about 93 percent from 2020. Neither it nor Air China have yet released February traffic data.

Globally, IATA reports that January international airline traffic was down 72 percent from 2020.

Madhu Unnikrishnan
March 15th, 2021 at 1:33 PM EDT

Photo credit:  China Eastern

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