There is no doubt that airliners were the novel coronavirus pandemic’s main vector.
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 USD 89 billion a year. (The largest region is the European Union and United Kingdom, with 25 percent, worth USD 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.
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.
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