Beijing airport
Air China planes parked on the tarmac at Beijing Capital Airport. For the second week in a row, the recovery in global air traffic has taken a step back. Image Credit: AFP

Beijing: For the second week in a row, the recovery in global air traffic has taken a step back.

Airline seat capacity declined about a quarter of a percentage compared to 68 per cent of the amount offered in the same week of 2019.

The biggest challenges are once again in Asia. The broadest virus outbreak in China since the pandemic first began has forced officials to suspend flights and increase testing of airport workers. That's taken a chunk out of the nation's massive domestic aviation trade, which has performed the best among the largest pre-pandemic global markets.

What's happening?

The question for airlines now is whether vaccines can be distributed quickly enough to counter the spread of new coronavirus variants.

From the start of the year, carriers in China, India, the US and Europe, to name some, registered steady gains as they slowly added more flights to their schedules. But the rise of the delta variant has challenged the return to normalcy.

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On the other hand, there are signs of progress - most notably in Singapore, which rapidly scaled up its vaccine program, and in Hong Kong, which this week started to loosen some of the world's tightest restrictions. The UAE, whose hubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi connect hundreds of thousands of travelers daily to far flung points, this week said it will lift its ban on transit passengers from India and other Southeast Asian nations.

"We always knew that 2021 would feature a one-step-forward, one-step-backward approach, but were hopeful that the strides forward could be larger. While that does seem to be the case, we'll know in the next few weeks if China, for example, sees that recovery dented by the latest outbreak. But for now, on balance, there's more reason for optimism than pessimism."

- Rob Morris, Global head of consultancy, Cirium

The International Air Transport Association said that 2020 was the worst year on record for the airline industry, with 66 per cent of the world's commercial air transport fleet grounded at the depth of the crisis in April.

China stumbles

In China, airline capacity has fallen below pre-pandemic levels for the first time in five weeks. Airlines scheduled 9.8 per cent fewer seats this week than last, according to OAG, reducing capacity to 95.7 per cent of 2019 levels.

The rapid drop has sent jitters across the crude-oil market, as airlines rapidly scale back on flights. In an effort to discourage travel, the Civil Aviation Administration has told customers they can seek a full refund on domestic flights through August 31.

Schedules for this week, which likely don't yet reflect the full impact of the latest developments, show Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines Corp. at 13 per cent below 2019 capacity levels "- an almost 9-point drop in one week. A slightly smaller magnitude of decline was registered at Air China, which is now down 5.6 per cent versus the same week two years ago. China Southern Airlines remains just 3 per cent below pre-pandemic capacity.