Chinese airlines resort to short-term debt for lifeline
06/01/2020|4:19:07 PM|SCMP

Major Chinese airlines have been resorting to short-term financing to stay afloat after their revenues all but stopped amid travel restrictions aimed at containing the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

The debt burden among carriers globally is expected to surge by 28 per cent by the end of this year after the pandemic brought demand for air travel to a virtual halt.

Mainland China’s three largest airlines – Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines – and their parent companies have issued an unprecedented 90.5 billion yuan (US$12.7 billion) worth of short-term notes since January 23, the day when Wuhan, the epicentre of the original outbreak, went into lockdown, according to data tracked by the South China Morning Post.

Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines and its parent had issued 47.7 billion yuan of super short-term commercial paper (SCP) – which usually mature within nine months or less – the largest amount among the big three airlines in that period. Coupons for most of those notes were well below 2 per cent, except for a 2.7 billion yuan 269-day bond that was priced at 2.14 per cent.

“The increase of debt is unavoidable, the most urgent thing is to survive,” said Lei Zheng, founder and president of the Institute for Aviation Research. “Some airlines are not even able to borrow money.”

The frequent short-term note issuance of Chinese carriers comes as global airlines struggle to stay afloat after fleets were grounded amid travel restrictions imposed to help stop the spread of Covid-19.

China’s three biggest carriers recorded their steepest quarterly losses in the first quarter since the global financial crisis. They are expected to lose US$314 billion in revenue this year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Sichuan Airlines and Xiamen Airlines, smaller Chinese carriers, have issued nine and seven batches of SCP since January 23, respectively, worth 5.1 billion yuan and 3.3 billion yuan, according to the Post’s calculations.

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