China’s three biggest airlines have all reported higher passenger numbers for December compared to November, but the overall trend is down on twelve months earlier. It confirms the rollercoaster ride that Chinese carriers are in as they are confronted with Omicron and the zero-tolerance policy on Covid infections by their government. China’s Big Three rollercoaster ride continues.

China Southern Airlines carried 6.2 million passengers in December, up from 4.9 million in November but still 38.4 percent down on December 2020. How fluctuating traffic is in China can be seen when looking further back to October, when China Southern carried 8.6 million passengers and 4.5 million in August. During the whole of 2021, the airline welcomed 97.7 million passengers on board, an increase of 4.05 percent. The average load factor was 71.2 percent, down 0.21 percentage points in 2020. Total revenue passenger kilometers were 152.4 million, 0.66 percent down.

By and large, most passengers flew on its domestic network: 6.1 million. China Southern expanded the network with five major routes that connect multiple cities on the same, extended flight. The international network saw only 52.220 passengers remains pretty non-existent, although the average load factor of 50.47 percent for 2021 doesn’t reflect that badly.

At 1.4 billion tons, cargo was also slightly down in 2021 compared to the previous year, by 1.31 percent. Domestic cargo ended at 765 million tons, down 6.4 percent year-on-year, whereas international cargo improved by 4.7 percent to 664 million tons. Revenue ton-kilometers for 2021 were 21.2 million, up 1.93 percent.

China Southern ended the year with a fleet of 878 aircraft after taking delivery of two Airbus A350-900s and one COMAC ARJ21 in December. It still lists five Airbus A380s, but according to some reports, the carrier has parked or even retired the two oldest aircraft.

Air China

Air China saw the lowest traffic numbers of the Big Three. It carried 4.3 million passengers in November, down 37.2 percent on December 2020 but an improvement over 3.1 million in November. This was the lowest number of all year and even worse than 3.2 million in August. Year on year, Air China carrier 69 million passengers, plus 0.5 percent.

Domestic saw 4.18 million passengers in December and international just 21.600, a decrease of 39.5 percent year-on-year. In 2021, international traffic was 86.6 percent down to 301.400 passengers. Air China’s average load factor was 68.7 percent, down 1.7 percent. At 152.4 million, Air China’s RPKs in 2021 were 104.6 million, 4.7 percent lower than in 2020.

Air China’s cargo division reported a 6.6 percent increase of tons carried to 1.2 million for the whole of 2021. December was better than November at 97.233 tons but 15.1 percent down on the same month the year before. RTK’s were 13.6 million, up 2.4 percent.

Air China’s fleet comprised of 746 aircraft by late December, thanks to the delivery of two Airbus A320neo’s, two A321neo’s, and one A350. It retired one A330-200.

China Eastern

Right in between China Southern and Air China is the performance of China Eastern Airlines. It carried 4.6 million passengers in December, a twelve percent increase over November but still 32 percent down on December 2020.

For the full year, China Eastern ended 2021 with 78.5 million passengers carried, up by nine percent. It grew its domestic capacity by eleven percent. Capacity measured in ASK’s has been 20.7 percent lower and RPK’s by 31.4 percent, although international traffic grew by 3.3 percent.

Possibly thanks to the opening of new routes, regional traffic saw an increase of 107.5 percent more passengers year on year. This outperforms the 27.3 percent increase seen at Air China while China Southern even reported a 30.7 percent drop in regional passengers. Air China’s cargo and mail turnover increased by 17.2 percent in December.

China Eastern had 752 aircraft in its fleet on December 31, having taken delivery of two A320neo’s.

The outlook for the coming weeks and months will be determined by Omicron. With cases found in Beijing, Tianjin, and other cities, the government is applying strict testing procedures and total lockdowns if necessary. None of the three airlines is making forecasts, although China Eastern identifies Omicron the initiatives taken by the government to contain the virus. With Chinese New Year ahead on February 1, the Big Three, which all reported losses in the third quarter, will brace themselves for another rollercoaster month.

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Richard Schuurman
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Active as journalist since 1987, starting with regional newspaper Zwolse Courant. Grand Prix reporter in 1997 at Dutch monthly Formule 1, general reporter Lelystad/Flevoland at De Stentor/Dagblad Flevoland, from 2002 until June 2021 radio/tv reporter/presentor with Omroep Flevoland.
Since mid-2016 freelance aviation journalist, since June 2021 fully dedicated to aviation. Reporter/editor AirInsight since December 2018. Contributor to Airliner World, Piloot & Vliegtuig. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.

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