by Xinhua writers Zhao Yang and Zhou Huimin
China's civil aviation sector, one of the industries hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, is regaining momentum, with fuel added by the country's effective epidemic control and reviving economy.
In August, Chinese airlines flew a total of 45.5 million passengers, resuming around 75 percent of the passenger flow of the same period last year, while airfreight volume hit 546,000 tonnes, equal to 86.7 percent of that a year earlier, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).
The recovery of demand for passenger transport accelerated thanks to rapid economic resumption and effective epidemic control, said a report from China Merchants Securities, noting that the revival of air-travel demand for business and tourism purposes beat market expectations in July.
China's civil aviation recovery is ahead of the world, while global passenger traffic measured in revenue passenger kilometers will not return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2024, said the International Air Transport Association in a statement in July.
EFFECTIVE EPIDEMIC CONTROL -- A SAFETY VALVE
China's civil aviation industry bore the brunt of the COVID-19 epidemic, seeing total air transport turnover tumbling 73.9 percent year on year, passenger throughput plummeting 84.5 percent and cargo and mail throughput dropping 21 percent in February when the impact was the most severe.
The country reacted with a raft of effective and flexible measures in epidemic prevention and control for both domestic and international flights, aiming to lower health risks to the minimum level while facilitating air traffic.
Shortly after the epidemic outbreak, Chinese airlines and airports strengthened ventilation and disinfection work for aircraft and terminals, performed strict temperature checks and adopted guidelines for emergency response.
Song Min, who works in Hainan Province, plans to return to her hometown in central China's Anhui Province by air and visit the cities of Changsha and Chengdu during the coming National Day holiday.
"I am not worried about health risks traveling by air as the country is experienced in epidemic prevention and control," Song said.
Frequent business traveler Zeng Qiangyong viewed airlines and airports as very responsible in anti-epidemic work, saying they are attentive to detail, provide warm service and communicate patiently with passengers who are reluctant to cooperate.
The country's above-expectation recovery in civil aviation transport is a dividend derived from effective epidemic prevention and control, said Qi Qi, associate professor of Guangzhou Civil Aviation College.
In July, several Chinese airlines including the domestic regional airline China Express reported year-on-year growth in terms of traffic volume, while flight volume of airports in cities including Chengdu, Shenzhen and Sanya saw year-on-year rises, said Zhao Wei, professor of Civil Aviation Management Institute of China.
To contain the risk of imported COVID-19 cases, the country restricted the number of international passenger flights in March. A reward and suspension mechanism was adopted in early June to allow more foreign carriers with effective epidemic control measures to resume flights in order to maintain regular international traffic.
China had resumed regular passenger traffic with 20 more countries as of early August compared with the period when the epidemic was more severe, CAAC data showed.
STRONG DOMESTIC DEMAND -- THE SUPER FUEL
While sound epidemic control measures provided air travelers with reassurance, China's robust economic recovery shored up the domestic demand.
The country's gross domestic product expanded by 3.2 percent year on year in Q2, following a 6.8 percent contraction in Q1, while the retail sales of consumer goods returned to growth for the first time this year in August, rising 0.5 percent year on year.
Civil aviation operator Hainan Airlines at the end of August saw its domestic flight volume recovering to 90 percent of that a year ago. Its passenger flight volume and passenger traffic soared 30 to 40 percent month on month during the summer traffic peak.
The market is expected to be more dynamic in the next few days as the Mid-Autumn Festival overlaps with the National Day holiday this year to make an eight-day-long public holiday.
Air travel peaks during traditional holidays including the Spring Festival did not appear in the first half of the year due to the COVID-19, delaying huge demands for tourism and family reunions, said Ma Ning, who is in charge of online marketing with Hainan Airlines.
Ma predicted that passenger volume will reach the level and even surpass that of the same period last year during the coming holiday, as pent-up demands are released.
A report from China's major online travel agency Trip.com predicted that Chinese people may make around 600 million trips during the coming long public holiday which starts Thursday.
TIMELY BUSINESS ADJUSTMENT -- A SMART NAVIGATOR
To survive the epidemic, Chinese airlines thought outside the box to tap into new opportunities.
In mid-June, China Eastern Airlines offered a flight package product, allowing customers to take unlimited flights in certain periods before the end of the year after a one-off payment. The package became a hot sale once released, with more than 100,000 sold in one month.
Around 10 airlines have offered such pre-paid package plans. Song said she failed to buy the package plan from Hainan Airlines as they were sold out instantly.
As freight demand surged amid the COVID-19 outbreak, air companies have also allocated more resources to cargo transport, even refitting some passenger aircraft into cargo carriers, supported by the civil aviation regulator.
CAAC data showed that refitted cargo carriers accounted for over half of all new cargo flights during the March-June period, and all-cargo freight of the industry saw a 20.1-percent year-on-year growth in August.
The sector has gradually gone through the darkest hour in the short term, according to China Merchants Securities, which eyes improvement in the airlines' financial results starting the third quarter.
Qi expected the sector to embrace a full recovery or even expand beyond the level of the same period last year in the fourth quarter, expressing optimism in the country's epidemic control and consumer demand.
"The landscape here is beyond compare," he said.