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International carriers remain bullish on long-term prospects

By Zhu Wenqian | China Daily | Updated: 2020-03-26 09:37
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An employee, wearing protective mask following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), passes in front of All Nippon Airways (ANA) logo at Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan, March 14, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

International carriers remain bullish on long-term prospects in China even as the aviation sector reels from a flurry of cancellations and groundings as nations scramble to halt the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Currently, only less than 10 international carriers are operating direct flights to China. These include firms like Singapore Airlines, Air Asia, All Nippon Airways (ANA), Aeroflot and Ethiopian Airlines. Thai Airways, the largest carrier in Thailand, which maintained operations to China, said it would suspend all its international flights from Wednesday till the end of May.

China, which has been making steady progress in controlling the outbreak, is presently making intense efforts to curb imported cases. Starting from Sunday, all international flights to Beijing have been diverted to 12 Chinese cities first, and passengers are made to undergo strict health checks before being cleared for flights to Beijing. The inspection process is expected to take 10 to 14 hours.

"Whether to operate flights or not depends on the markets and local governments. With travel restrictions for foreign citizens implemented in multiple countries, such as Thailand, there are basically no passengers who will take flights, and it's difficult for carriers to sell tickets," said Lin Zhijie, an aviation analyst.

"The cancellation of flights is also partly related to the flight diversion policy of Beijing. The extra hours, and extra landing and takeoff taken at another Chinese city will increase operational costs, and most foreign carriers don't have support facilities in these transit cities," he said.

The United Arab Emirates has also decided to suspend all commercial flights for an initial 14 days as part of the measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The EY888 flight operated by Etihad Airlines that flies from Abu Dhabi to Beijing is expected to stop operations from Thursday. Earlier, a large number of Chinese passengers who fly from Europe-the new epicenter of the contagion-to China chose to transfer in Abu Dhabi, as most direct flights from Europe to China had been canceled.

Robin Kamark, chief commercial officer of Etihad Aviation Group, believes that the situation will improve in the long term. "COVID-19 has posed a major challenge for all airlines serving China, with a massive drop in demand on key routes. We are optimistic that the situation will improve by summer," he said.

"Our decision to operate flights between Beijing and Abu Dhabi during the epidemic period demonstrates our unwavering support and commitment to the China market as a whole," he said earlier this month before the flight suspension was announced.

Singapore Airlines said it would reduce 96 percent of its original capacity until the end of April to prevent the spread of the epidemic. The company said the outbreak has been its biggest challenge since inception. It still maintains several direct flights between Singapore and China. From Tuesday, it has been also operating daily round-trip flights between Singapore and Beijing, Shanghai. It will also operate flights between Singapore and Guangzhou three times a week, in addition to a weekly flight that connects Singapore and Chongqing.

"China is one of the most important markets for Singapore Airlines. To meet various travel demands from Chinese passengers, we have kept improving our services in China," the carrier said in a written reply to China Daily.

The falling demand has also crimped revenue of carriers. Singapore Airlines said it has taken multiple measures to cut costs, such as delaying deliveries of new aircraft and cutting salaries of executives.

Air Asia, the Malaysian budget carrier with the largest passenger load in China, is still maintaining several flights that connect Kuala Lumpur with Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other cities. The company said it would give 100,000 complimentary redeemable tickets for eligible front-line medical staff in Wuhan, Hubei province, for one return flight between China and Southeast Asia, while their families and friends will get a 20-percent discount.

ANA has suspended a group of international flights, and it maintains fewer flights connecting Tokyo with Beijing, Dalian, Qingdao and Xiamen. The carrier said it launched flights to China in 1987, and the China market is quite important. Despite a large reduction in the number of flights for now, the company believes demand will resume after the crisis is over.

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