Choice of Shanghai for next global aviation conference, a ‘nudge’ towards opening China’s borders, airline body’s CEO says

·4-min read

The head of the aviation industry’s main lobbying group has “nudged” China towards reopening its borders, noting the strategic importance of the country’s huge air-travel market to airlines the world over struggling to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Those hopes were underscored by the global industry group’s selection of Shanghai as host city for its June 2022 gathering of industry executives – two decades after it became the first Chinese city to host the annual conference.

Willie Walsh, director general and CEO of the 290-member airline International Air Transport Association (IATA), said he hoped the group’s decision to accept the invite from China Eastern Airlines would gently “nudge” the country into reopening its borders.

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Willie Walsh, director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association. Photo: Reuters
Willie Walsh, director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association. Photo: Reuters

“This is a demonstration of how China is a central part of the global aviation system,” Walsh said of the venue selection.

The Chinese mainland remains virtually closed off to non-residents, likewise Hong Kong and Macau.

After recent policy changes in New Zealand, they are left as the three remaining jurisdictions attempting to battle Covid-19 via a zero-tolerance strategy, a decision critics have said would come at the expense of the global economy.

“We want to get back to being able to serve China. It’s one of the big growth markets in the world, and strategically important to all airlines,” Walsh said.

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Liu Shaoyong, chairman of China Eastern Airlines, said in a statement he was excited to host industry colleagues and keen to showcase the city’s transformation in the two decades since IATA first came to Shanghai.

IATA has forecast China will fly 1.6 billion people a year by 2037, up 1 billion after two decades of breakneck air travel growth, accounting for a fifth of all global travellers.

Before Covid-19, China was on pace to usurp the United States as the largest air travel market in the world by the middle of the decade.

Airlines are now queuing up for their eventual return to the mainland market, one of the final pieces of the Covid recovery jigsaw puzzle.

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr. Photo: Reuters
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr. Photo: Reuters

Among the most concerned airline CEOs was Lufthansa’s Carsten Spohr, whose carrier – Europe’s largest – was operating about 100 flights per week to and from China pre-pandemic.

“We are not only slowing down our recovery at Lufthansa, which is also my concern, we are slowing down the recovery of the economic relations between China and Germany,” he told the Post on the sidelines of the IATA industry gathering in Boston this week.

Walsh suggested China Eastern had secured political support to extend an invitation to IATA to host the in-person event, despite some scepticism given China’s strict pandemic measures to date.

“I think China appreciates the value of aviation, and certainly there is awareness at the highest political levels in China that the AGM is scheduled to be held in Shanghai,” Walsh said.

In contrast, the Beijing 2022 Winter Games will take place under strict Covid-19 measures, including an absence of international spectators and a vaccine mandate for anyone entering the sporting event’s bio-secure bubble.

A passenger at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport. The Chinese mainland remains virtually closed off to non-residents. Photo: Bloomberg
A passenger at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport. The Chinese mainland remains virtually closed off to non-residents. Photo: Bloomberg

Last weekend, one of China’s top pandemic experts, Dr Zhong Nanshan, told state media that the country should start to ease its strict border control measures if up to 85 per cent of its 1.4 billion citizens had been vaccinated and infections overseas fell sharply.

Hong Kong on Tuesday similarly defended pandemic measures that currently force travellers from most countries outside China to do 14 to 21 days of hotel quarantine on arrival, leading to widespread criticism from the international business community.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the city’s ties with the mainland were more important than international business and global travel links, though no timeline for re-establishing cross-border travel has yet been made public.

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