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China traffic increases by 183% from 2008 to 2017; domestic seats dominate, Nepal leads international growth race

Air China

Chinese airports handled 1.15 billion passengers in 2017, with international capacity accounting for 22% of all available seats. Air China introduced a new service from Beijing to Copenhagen on 30 May. Cutting the ribbon to officially open the new service were: Ying Deng, Chinese Ambassador to Denmark; Brian Mikkelsen, Danish Minister of Economic and Business Affairs; Thomas Woldbye, CEO, Copenhagen Airport; and Andy Hao, GM Denmark, Air China.

The Asia Pacific region has enjoyed some of the strongest growth in air traffic over the past 10 years and China has been at the forefront of this expansion. Chinese airports handled 405.76 million passengers in 2008, and by 2017 this had increased by 183% to 1.15 billion. 

Chinese traffic doubles since 2010

During this period China has only known positive year-on-year increases in traffic, with only one 12 month period falling short of a double-digit growth rate. This occurred in 2012 when passenger numbers were still up by an impressive 9.5% compared to 2011. The strongest single annual increase over the past 10 years took place in 2009, with Chinese airports seeing a 20% increase in passenger numbers at a time when many around the world were experiencing a decline in traffic due to the global financial crisis. The average year-on-year growth rate from 2008 to 2017 was 12%. 

China, airport passengers

Source: CAAC.

Domestic seats continue to dominate

The domestic market has accounted for the majority of two-way capacity serving Chinese airports over the past 10 years. In 2008 there were 242.02 million seats available on domestic links and this had increased by 158% to 624.13 million in 2017. International capacity grew from 77.96 million seats to 173.23 million over the same period, representing an increase of 122%. This was despite a 5.6% reduction in international seats in 2009. The average year-on-year growth rate for domestic capacity from 2008 to 2017 was 11%. This compares to an average international increase of 9.4% over the same period. The percentage of two-way seats flown on domestic flights subsequently increased from 76% to 78% over the period in question.

China, domestic and international seats

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser – non-stop flights only.

The fastest growing domestic route in China in 2017, based on airport pairs with a minimum of 100,000 one-way seats in 2016, was the link between Zhengzhou and Yinchuan, with 390,000 seats available, more than double the number on offer the previous year. If the same assumptions are applied to international services, the fastest growing foreign link was the service from Shanghai Pudong to Sapporo Chitose. This Japanese connection was served by around 175,000 one-way seats last year, an increase of 73% compared to 2016.

Huang Ping takes airport growth honours

OAG data shows that 229 Chinese airports saw some form of scheduled services in 2017. Some of these would only have witnessed limited or irregular operations, but 190 offered 100,000 departing seats or more last year. An analysis of year-on-year capacity increases for the more established airports (those with 100,000 departing seats or more in 2016) reveals that 156 enjoyed an increase in departing seat numbers in 2017, while 18 experienced cuts. The strongest growth among these facilities came at Huang Ping, with its departing capacity more than trebling to 390,000 seats last year. The airport welcomed a number of new carriers including Donghai Airlines, Spring Airlines and Zhejiang Loong Airlines, while other operators, including Colorful Guizhou Airlines offered more seats than in 2016. The largest airport in the top 12 growth table was Tongren in fifth position, which saw more than one million departing seats available in 2017.

China, airport growth

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser – direct flights only. Includes airports with min of 100,000 departing seats in 2016.

Another 44 airports saw some form of scheduled service in 2016, but provided fewer than 100,000 one-way seats. Among these facilities, 33 enjoyed an increase in capacity in 2017 with the strongest percentage growth occurring at Zhalantun, Qiemo and Cangyuan. A further 14 airports saw the introduction of their first scheduled services in 2017 (during the period under analysis). Shangrao was the busiest of these, with more than 100,000 combined seats on offer from four airlines to six domestic destinations.

Nepal tops table for international increases

Schedules indicate that 78 international country markets welcomed at least one flight from China during 2017. The largest of these was Thailand, with 10.84 million departing seats available to its Asia Pacific neighbour. One trend of note was the sharp decline in capacity to South Korea last year. South Korea had been the largest international market for Chinese air travellers between 2014 and 2016, but in 2017 departing one-way seats on this country pair fell by 22%. This was probably due, at least in part, to political tensions between the neighbouring nations, with multiple news agencies reporting a Chinese ban on tour groups to South Korea during 2017. The percentage of total international capacity departing China for South Korea declined from 12% in 2012 to 7.8% in 2017.

An analysis of year-on-year capacity increases for China’s more established international markets (those with 100,000 one-way seats or more in 2016) reveals that 38 saw an increase in departing seats in 2017, while six experienced cuts. The strongest growth came on services to Nepal, with Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Sichuan Airlines all adding capacity to Kathmandu, and Tibet Airlines also commencing services on this country pairing. In total 11 of the 12 fastest growing country markets were in Asia or the Asia Pacific region. The only country from outside of these regions was Spain, in fourth position.

China, international growth

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser – direct flights only. Includes countries served by min of 100,000 seats in 2016.

The largest international market to make the top 12 growth table was Malaysia, in ninth spot, which was also the eighth largest foreign market from China in 2017. There were significant increases in capacity from a number of carriers between China and Malaysia last year, including AirAsia X and Malindo Air.

A further 34 international markets were served from China with fewer than 100,000 one-way seats in 2016. One example from this group which experienced impressive growth last year was the Czech Republic, which, until 2015, had no direct scheduled flights from China at all. The European nation witnessed a 73% boost in Chinese one-way seats in 2017. China Eastern, Hainan Airlines and Sichuan Airlines all increased their capacity on services to Prague, with China Eastern introducing new routes from Ningbo and Xi’an.

Hainan Airlines

Australia claimed 12th position in China’s international growth table for 2017. It was also the 10th largest international market overall based on available one-way seats. Hainan Airlines operated its inaugural flight between Haikou and Sydney on 30 January, with the route launch being celebrated at the origin airport.


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