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China Air Travel Recovery Drives Global Demand to Near Pre-Pandemic Levels

The return of China’s domestic travelers helped drive the global air travel recovery a tick closer to pre-pandemic levels, new data from trade group IATA shows.

Airline passenger traffic, measured in revenue per available seat kilometers (RASK), was 95.7% of 2019 levels during August, according to IATA. That is up 0.1% from July, and the closest to pre-pandemic levels that it has been since the crisis began. Traffic jumped 28.4% year-over-year.

The return of Chinese domestic travelers, who were largely absent from the recovery a year ago due to the country’s zero-Covid policy, drove the increase. Domestic traffic in China nearly doubled compared to last year, up 94% in August.

But globally, the main story continues to be the return of international travelers. International traffic increased 30% year-over-year in August, and stands at 88.5% of 2019 levels, IATA data show. North American airlines filled the greatest percentage of their international seats during the month.

“For the year to date, international traffic has increased by 50% versus last year, and ticket sales data show international bookings strengthening for travel in the last part of the year,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh said.

Walsh’s comments fit with the outlook painted by major international longhaul carriers. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have both said they see international demand, particularly to Europe, staying robust longer into the fall — in other words into October — than it has historically. And Emirates President Tim Clark in June said the airline was “full” for the next nine months, or into early 2024.

Many longhaul airlines are looking to Asia as travelers surge back to the region after lengthy Covid travel restrictions. Some Asian countries, most notably China but also Japan, maintained Covid-era travel restrictions until late last year or early this year. But limits on airline capacity, including the geopolitical situation capping U.S.-China flights at artificially low levels, have taken longer to come off, leaving significant pent-up demand to the region that is expected to continue into 2024.

One thing to watch: Where domestic demand goes after August. U.S. budget carriers, including Breeze Airways, Frontier Airlines, and Spirit Airlines, have all reported weakening post-summer demand in the price-sensitive end of the market. That, without a commensurate return in corporate travelers, could mean the global air travel recovery could slow or even fall back this autumn.

This article originally appeared in Airline Weekly.

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