Why China’s Airports Declined In 2021 While Others Were Recovering

About 4.5 billion passengers flew last year. Airports in most world regions saw more passenger traffic than in 2020, the worst year yet for aviation.

That recovery was expected: many more people are fully vaccinated, restrictions were eased, and confidence and demand increased. More seats and flights therefore followed.

China’s lagging recovery

China was a significant exception. As shown in the table below, seven of its ten busiest airports recorded in 2021 fewer passengers than in 2020. Imagine if China didn’t have such an enormous domestic market.

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According to Airports Council International, all ten airports fell in global airport rankings. They were outperformed by faster-growing airports, especially in the US. Even Orlando and Las Vegas entered the world’s busiest ten, albeit temporarily.

Airport 2020 passengers 2021 passengers % change in 2021
Guangzhou 43,760,427 40,249,679 -8.0
Chengdu 40,741,509 40,117,496 -1.5
Shenzhen 37,916,059 36,358,185 -4.1
Chongqing 34,937,789 35,766,284 2.4
Shanghai Hongqiao 31,165,641 33,207,337 6.6
Beijing Capital 34,513,827 32,639,013 -5.4
Kunming 32,989,127 32,221,195 -2.3
Shanghai Pudong 30,476,531 32,206,814 5.7
Xian 31,073,884 30,173,312 -2.9
Hangzhou 28,224,342 28,163,820 -0.2


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Guangzhou: the worst of the largest

Guangzhou, the world’s busiest airport in 2020, saw passenger traffic fall by 8%, the worst of the top ten. Only Chongqing, Shanghai Hongqiao, and Shanghai Pudong bucked the trend.

The recovery of Pudong is especially notable given it is, in normal times, the main international airport for the enormous city.

China’s recovery was going well until the first quarter of 2021, with the derailment especially notable from mid-2021 onwards. Expectedly, China’s leading airlines reported heavier losses in the last quarter of 2021, contributing to lower financial performance than in 2020.

China has suffered from the Delta and especially the Omicron variants and the country’s zero-COVID response to it. It has seen large numbers of lockdowns and flight cancellations. China quickly shut down cities and tourist sights, and citizens avoided travel.


Flights to and from CAN
https://www.flightradar24.com/CCA2804/2b7a506b

Of China’s ten busiest airports in 2021, Guangzhou (number-one) saw the biggest percentage fall in passengers versus 2020. When writing, it’s 21:00 in China, but here are the flights to/from the major city. Image: Flightradar24.

What’s happening now?

As mid-2022 nears, the world is increasingly returning to normal, bar staffing shortages and other adverse occurrences that impede the recovery. For example, London Heathrow expects peak summer days to be near 2019 passenger numbers.


It’s different in China. Even in April 2022, the recovery continues to lag, with higher recorded COVID cases than in 2020 or 2021. Currently, Shanghai is in lockdown with stringent quarantine restrictions, although an easing is expected despite spiraling cases.

Country-wide, large numbers of flights are still being canceled due to the government’s zero-tolerance approach.


China's domestic network April 2022

China’s domestic route network in April 2022. Image: OAG.

Looking ahead

China’s no-COVID policy cannot continue indefinitely. Quite aside from the population’s waning tolerance, it would mean enormous damage to its economy.

Perhaps Shanghai’s easing of restrictions despite rapidly rising cases shows the path to be taken, similar to other nations.

Something must give if China is to reach pre-pandemic levels by the end of next year, as predicted by Stefano Baronci, ACI Asia-Pacific’s regional director. On April 13th, he said:

Markets where domestic traffic is dominant, such as China, are expected to recover quicker, reaching pre-COVID-19 levels by the end of 2023.

When do you expect China to recover meaningfully? Let us know in the comments.


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