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Airlines give lukewarm reaction to China’s border reopening amid Covid-19 surge

The world’s airlines are taking a cautious approach to China’s reopening, reluctant to immediately change up schedules and divert planes from other routes despite the internal pent-up demand for international travel.

Scheduled flights into China during January, February and March are up no more than 2.9% this week compared to last week, according to aviation data provider Cirium. That’s fewer than 100 more flights each month. Planned inbound services for the remainder of the year are little changed — a sign China’s relaxation of quarantine restrictions from Jan. 8 are yet to convince airlines to make significant changes to their timetables.

Carriers’ lukewarm reaction to China’s border reopening amid a Covid surge doesn’t chime with the intense desire for overseas travel from people living in Asia’s biggest economy. Curbs on travellers from China are also limiting any immediate ramp-up in flights as major markets, including the US, mandate negative Covid-19 tests from arriving passengers.

“I don’t think airlines will shift capacity from what they’re doing now in China,” Subhas Menon, director general of the Association for Asia Pacific Airlines, said. Most will rather wait to assess the situation, with Hong Kong, which also recently did away with many Covid restrictions, being a useful testbed, he said.

Prior to the pandemic, China had a massive outbound travel market.

Mainland residents reacted swiftly to news with bookings for outbound flights surging by 254% on Tuesday morning versus the same period the day prior, Trip.com Group Ltd. data show. The top five destinations were Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand. Flight bookings to Singapore jumped 600%, while bookings to the remaining four destinations soared around 400%.

Airlines in those countries however weren’t rushing to add capacity.

Singapore Airlines Ltd. said in a statement that it will “continue to monitor the demand for air travel and adjust capacity accordingly.” Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. welcomed the announcement and said it will “continue to communicate with relevant authorities and increase our passenger capacity to and from the Chinese mainland as much as possible.”

Korean Air Lines Co. said it plans to increase flights to China after the two nations mutually agreed to boost connectivity. Even though China has lifted quarantine rules, there’s still a travel ban on group tours to South Korea that has been in place since 2017 — retaliation from China in response to a US-led deployment of an anti-missile shield in Korea.

Korean Air currently operates nine flights a week to seven cities in mainland China and will boost that to 15 flights to nine cities starting from next month, with the two additional cities being Shenzhen and Xiamen on top of Shenyang, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Dalian, Qingdao, Tianjin and Nanjing.

“There aren’t that many inquiries from Chinese, or from Koreans, for travel packages yet,” said Yook Hyun-Woo, a director at Modetour Networks, a major travel agency in Seoul. “We’re still worried a resurgence of the virus during winter may cool demand.”

Japan said this week it will require a negative Covid-19 test result for travelers coming from China after infections there exploded, and asked airlines not to increase the current number of flights. US health authorities followed on Wednesday, while Italy will test all arrivals from China after almost half the passengers on two flights to Milan tested positive for the virus.

International airlines will also be seeking clarification around aircrew and whether they are able to stay overnight in China now quarantine has been dropped. Currently, many international carriers have to fly into China, drop off passengers and then fly to Seoul for the crew to spend the night there before flying back to China the next day to pick up fresh travelers for an onward overseas flight.

The industry’s main trade body, the International Air Transport Association, also said the requirement for pre-departure Covid tests needs to be removed. (Source HT)

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