Economy seats sell out for business-class fares as travellers fleeing a worsening Covid-19 pandemic bid for limited flights to China

Iris Ouyang

Air fares to mainland China soared in the past few weeks when the coronavirus crisis escalated from a regional outbreak into a global pandemic, as desperate travellers rushed for limited seats on the few carriers that were still flying to the country amid a widening circle of global quarantines and travel ban.

The average price of air tickets from Italy, Spain, Sweden, the United States, and Iran – several countries with the fastest rising cases – rose by about 150 per cent on March 15, compared with the March 1 average, according to data by Trip.com Group, China’s largest online ticket agent. The average fares to China from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia rose at different levels compared with last year, Trip.com said in response to an inquiry by South China Morning Post.

“The increases in bookings and prices are due to insufficient supply caused by large-scale, and even complete, suspensions by global airlines,” said Yu Zhanfu, transport expert and partner at the consultancy Roland Berger. Surging fares during the global pandemic, “no doubt the most severe crisis for the aviation industry in modern history,” will not improve airlines’ financial performance, he said.

The coronavirus outbreak became a global pandemic during the first two weeks of March, with the number of confirmed cases outside mainland China exploding more than 10-fold to 72,469 on March 15, while the death toll rose 24 times to 2,531. Over the same period, confirmed cases in China – including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan – tapered off, with the accumulated number of confirmed afflictions rising 1.4 per cent to 81,048, while the fatality rose 11 per cent to 3,204, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) data.

Mason Quan, a student from Beijing at a Midwestern US college, paid 34,000 yuan (US$4,787) for an economy class ticket on Air China back to the mainland on Monday, almost five times the normal price. “After our school said next term all classes will be taken online, I decided to return home,” he said.

Jenny Liu had to pay 30 per cent more for a business class ticket on EVA Air last week to Shanghai via Taipei from New York, currently a Covid-19 hotspot with the highest number of confirmed cases in a rapidly escalating health crisis in the US. “I was worried about whether I would receive the best treatment if I was infected, or fell sick,” she said.

“Flights are likely to have empty seats in trips outbound from China, although inbound trips could be full,” said Shen Xiaofeng, transport analyst at Huatai Securities, adding that a spike in bookings and prices will be of limited benefit to airlines. “Considering the costs of the two trips, airlines may only earn a slightly bigger profit than before … [it will] definitely not be a huge increase.”

The available seat kilometres, or passenger carrying capacity, both domestically and internationally, of China’s four largest carriers, Air China, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines and Hainan Airlines, fell by more than 57 per cent year on year this week, according to data from the CAPA Centre for Aviation.

The proportion of international and regional flights in the total available seat kilometres fell 17.8 percentage points this week and 15.5 percentage points last week, down from a gain of 34 per cent in March 2019.

“The price surge in recent weeks is likely to be short term,” said Diao Weimin, a professor at the government-managed Civil Aviation Management Institute of China, adding that prices and bookings are not merely market-driven, but also depend on global flight regulations and policies. “It will not have a big impact on overall operations, or on the global market landscape of carriers.”

Infographics: All you need to know about the global coronavirus outbreak

As the number of confirmed cases tapered off in mainland China, dozens of cities are stepping up their guard against importing the pathogen from returning travellers. Beijing’s municipal government took the lead by imposing mandatory 14-day quarantines on anybody entering the city’s land or airports, regardless of whether they are domestic or international travellers. That was soon followed by provincial authorities in Guangdong, Shandong, Zhejiang, Sichuan and Shanghai city, which operate international airports.

Anxious to ensure that the Chinese capital – with a population of 21 million residents, and 442 confirmed cases with eight deaths on March 15 – remains free of imported afflictions, the government directed all inbound flights to 12 cities including Tianjin, Shanghai and Nanjing.

The global aviation industry became one of the biggest victims of the escalating coronavirus pandemic, as travel bans put a universal damp on the entire industry all over the world. The industry’s capacity may be slashed by up to 80 per cent in the near term, putting dozens of cash-starved carriers at risk of closure. The industry needs a combined bailout estimated at US$200 billion (HK$1.55 trillion) to survive the coronavirus pandemic, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

More from South China Morning Post:

This article Economy seats sell out for business-class fares as travellers fleeing a worsening Covid-19 pandemic bid for limited flights to China first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2020.