Hong Kong International Airport suffered its worst January in five years amid a six-month streak of double-digit declines in passenger traffic, official figures released on Sunday showed, blaming it on the coronavirus outbreak and protests.
The Airport Authority, which runs one of Asia’s busiest air transport hubs, warned that February would see a “continued decline” as airlines suspended flights and countries restricted travel for anyone who had been to mainland China – and even Hong Kong – in the past 14 days, amid the outbreak.
The virus causes a deadly disease known as Covid-19.
Vivian Cheung Kar-fay, executive director of operations at the authority, said: “The airport’s traffic has been affected by multiple factors, including the novel coronavirus outbreak in late January and social circumstances.”
In January, 5.7 million passengers passed through the airport, down 11.7 per cent year on year, while the amount of air cargo handled fell by 10.4 per cent, amid the closure of mainland Chinese factories for the Lunar New Year.
The airport handled around 60 per cent fewer passenger flights this weekend. The gap will widen as more airlines, including Cathay Pacific, will reduce flights further from next week.
On Saturday, 231 flights were scheduled to take off from Hong Kong with 64 cancelled. On Sunday, some 217 flights were set to depart with 40 cancelled.
Among the latest adjustments, Air Canada said Toronto-Hong Kong flights would be suspended for most of next month, while Lufthansa and Swiss also reduced flights to Hong Kong.
Experts said the airport, which had been amid a prolonged slump in air traffic because of the anti-government protests, was likely to face a slower recovery than during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003.
Last week, American and United Airlines once again pushed back the date to resume flights to mainland China and Hong Kong to late April from late March, marking a near three-month hiatus from serving the city airport.
British Airways and Finnair, meanwhile, suspended one of two daily flights each to Hong Kong, with the UK flag carrier set to reinstate its full schedule in May. Both airlines’ mainland China flights remained suspended through March.
During the worst month of the Sars crisis, passenger traffic fell by 70 per cent, but air traffic rebounded strongly in the following year.
Struggling hometown rival Hong Kong Airlines, which cut 400 jobs in a last-ditch effort to stay afloat, warned a fortnight ago that weak travel demand would “likely continue” into the summer season – lasting from late March until late October.
Later this week, Cathay Pacific will unveil its January performance and its monthly commentary will offer clues about the airline’s future prospects.
Ivan Su, an analyst at Morningstar, said: “The effect of the protests will have a more prolonged impact on travel demand than the coronavirus outbreak. It will take much longer to see Chinese tourist arrival numbers climb back to 2018 levels.”
Some 51 million mainland visitors came to Hong Kong in 2018, but the figures fell by 14.2 per cent last year. As the citywide protests escalated, the monthly numbers fell by half. The new rule of 14 days’ mandatory quarantine for anyone coming from the mainland to curb the outbreak has further discouraged people from visiting Hong Kong.
The UN’s global aviation body earlier this week said the impact of the coronavirus on air travel was about to be worse than during the Sars, citing “the higher volume and greater global extent of the flight cancellations”.
As air travel to mainland China has grown exponentially, a study by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) said the higher starting point meant there was further to fall.
Airlines are likely to be deprived of US$4-5 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2020, the organisation said.
It said up to 20 million fewer people were travelling amid the outbreak. A total of 70 airlines have cancelled all international flights to and from mainland China while a further 50 reduced operations, amounting to an 80 per cent cut in non-domestic services.
Aviation data firm Cirium showed a fifth of domestic China flights were flying by February 11.
Henk Ombelet, head of advisory operations at Ascend by Cirium, said more cuts to flights was “dependent upon the further evolution of the virus transmission and infection rates in China and further afield”.
With two-thirds of outbound Chinese travellers typically opting to travel in the Asia-Pacific, ForwardKeys data shows advanced bookings in March and April was set to fall by 58 per cent.
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