February was a difficult month for China’s three largest carriers as the country battled the coronavirus outbreak and was the subject of travel restrictions globally. 

In traffic results released on 18 March, each carrier saw capacity and load factors collapse, both domestically and internationally. As with January’s traffic results, regional routes performed the worst, with capacity in come cases falling more than 90% for the period. 

China saw massive increases in the number of confirmed cases in February, with several cities, including the outbreak epicentre of Wuhan placed on lockdown. Many other countries had also placed restrictions for travel to and from China during the month. 

Air China carried 1.6 million in February, an 83% decline year-on-year. It was also significantly worse than January’s figure of 9.2 million passengers. Regional routes saw the sharpest decline in passengers carried just 36,000 passengers, for a 92% drop year-on-year. 

Overall RPKs for the month tumbled 80.5%, led mainly by falls in domestic and regional travel. Capacity, measured in ASKs fell 68% across the network. 

Passenger load factor fell 32.6 percentage points, to 51.4%. Again, regional and domestic load factors saw the largest rate of decrease, at 45.7 and 35.9 percentage points respectively. 

China Eastern Airlines carried 1.32 million passengers in February, 87.5% down from a year earlier. It also represented a major decrease from January’s 10.1 million passengers carried. 

RPKs for the month tumbled 84%, led by falls in regional traffic. Overall ASKs, meanwhile, fell 72.7%. 

The SkyTeam carrier’s passenger load factor for the month was 50.3%, a drop of 34.2 percentage points. The sharpest declines were recorded in its regional network — at about 44 percentage points lower. 

As for China Southern Airlines, it carried 1.66 million passengers for the month, an 86.4% decrease compared to February 2019. 

RPKs across the network fell 85%, while ASKs tumbled 73%. Consequently, passenger load factor for the month came in at 47.1%, a year-on-year decrease of 38.1 percentage points. This was the worst passenger load factor result among the three carriers. 

The three airlines acknowledged the challenges the coronavirus outbreak posed to their business, but were also quick to take it in their stride, and stress that they would be monitoring the outbreak’s development closely. 

Air China states: “[We] will … strengthen market research and judgment, optimise the capacity allocation structure, strengthen cost management, focus on risk management and control and take proactive measures to minimise the impact of the epidemic.” 

Echoing similar sentiments, China Southern says it will “strengthen capacity control and explore market demand to closely track market trends” as it prepares for a possible recovery in the market after the pandemic. 

China Eastern acknowledged the outbreak’s “significant impact”, stating that it had “significantly reduced” passenger travel demand. Nonetheless, like its compatriots, it is working towards optimising capacity in the interim.