China flight bookings surge, recovery ahead

Forbidden City, Beijing, pre-pandemic

China’s decision to ditch its zero-Covid policy has triggered a surge in flight bookings, according to the latest data from ForwardKeys. China’s aviation regulator plans to restore flight capacity to 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels by January 6, and to 88 per cent by January 31. However, a full recovery is not possible immediately, as the industry needs some time to re-hire staff and meet all flight safety and service requirements, explains Olivier Ponti, VP Insights, ForwardKeys.

On December 7, Chinese authorities announced that a negative PCR test would no longer be required for air travel between provinces. Domestic flight bookings immediately surged 56 per cent on the previous week and continued to increase 69 per cent the following week. On December 26, China removed all COVID-related restrictions on domestic air travel; and bookings surged again, reaching 50 per cent of 2019’s level in the final week of the year.

As of January 3, domestic flight bookings during the upcoming Chinese New Year period, January 7 – February 15, were 71 per cent behind pre-pandemic (2019) levels and 8 per cent behind last year, with the most popular destinations being Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Kunming, Sanya, Shenzhen, Haikou, Guangzhou and Chongqing. Before the announcement on December 7, they were 91 per cent behind 2019.


We expect the Chinese outbound market will pick up strongly in Q2 2023, when airlines schedule capacity for the spring and summer
– Olivier Ponti


Also taking effect on January 8 was the end of the cap on the number of international flights to China and quarantine measures. In addition, Chinese citizens can now renew expired passports and apply for new ones.

Outbound flight bookings between December 26 and January 3 jumped 192 per cent compared to same period last year, but they are still 85 per cent behind pre-pandemic levels. Bookings to Abu Dhabi which has traditionally been a major gateway between China and the West, are 51 per cent behind 2019.

Olivier Ponti, VP Insights, ForwardKeys, commented: “Although Chinese New Year is likely to see international travel rebound for the first time in three years, we will need to wait longer before we see a resurgence in Chinese tourists exploring the globe. The reasons are: First, current scheduled international flight capacity is only at 10 per cent of 2019’s level; and owing to approval requirements for traffic rights and airport slots, it will be difficult for airlines to gear back up in less than a few months. Second, ticket prices remain high, with average air fares in December 160 per cent higher than in 2019. That said, there has been a downward trend since June, when quarantine was reduced from three weeks to seven days, and then to five days in November.”

“Third, some destinations, including the US, the UK, India, Qatar, Canada, Australia and all 27 EU member countries now require a pre-flight COVID-19 test for Chinese visitors; and others, such as Japan, South Korea and Italy, will impose testing on arrival and quarantine for those who test positive. Finally, a bottleneck processing passport renewals and visa applications is likely; and some countries, such as South Korea and Japan, are restricting short-term visas for Chinese travellers until the end of this month. Right now, we expect the Chinese outbound market will pick up strongly in Q2 2023, when airlines schedule capacity for the spring and summer, which include the May holiday, Dragon Boat festival in June and summer holidays.”