Asia-Pacific Sleepwalking Along The Road To Aviation Recovery

Three years ago, Asia became the center of global aviation. With hundreds of aircraft lined up to arrive, it seemed like nothing could stop the region from edging North America and Europe to one side.

Even just a few months ago, it seemed like all that was needed was for China to open its floodgates, and all would be well. If recovery to pre-COVID levels is the aim, then Asia-Pacific is barely moving the needle, and unless something happens soon, full recovery is a long way over the horizon.


Just over half of 2019 passenger levels

Today the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) released its preliminary January 2023 traffic figures. While very favorable comparisons were made to January 2022, the stark reality is that passenger traffic languishes at just 52% of January 2019 levels.

Japan Airlines Boeing 787

Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

In January 2019, the region’s airlines carried 32.2 million passengers, compared to 17.2 million in January 2023. And airline capacity, as measured by available seat kilometers (ASKs), has only increased to 56% of 2019 levels. This is good for airlines’ passenger load factors and keeping prices high but not for generating quick increases in traveler numbers.

Another troubling point is that when China reopened late last year, it seemed that January would see a corresponding surge in travel. With the end of the year and Lunar New Year holidays in January, it was reasonable to assume booking and passenger volumes would spike, but they didn’t.

Airbus A321neo Cathay Pacific

In December, Asia-Pacific airlines carried 16.1 million passengers, followed by 17.2 million in January, a rise of 6.6%, which on its own is a healthy increase. However, when the factors mentioned above are considered, it seems underwhelming.

AAPA is the industry association for scheduled airlines based in Asia-Pacific and aggregates data from 40 airlines, including most of the major carriers in the region. These include Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways, Qantas, Korean Air, Japan Airlines and China Southern. AAPA director general Subhas Menon said that international passenger markets enjoyed a strong start to the year in 2023. although he added:

“Strong demand buoyed by an increase in leisure travellers during the Lunar New Year holidays in the region, saw the number of passengers carried by Asia Pacific carriers in January rise to 52.1% of pre-pandemic traffic levels in 2019.”

Describing January this year as coming from strong demand is only possible if compared to any of the COVID years, not the pre-COVID era. AAPA used 2022 as a benchmark, allowing it to say that passengers carried were “more than seven times the volumes recorded in the same month last year” and that ASKs expanded markedly by 195% year on year.

Air China China Southern Aircraft at Guangzhou Airport

Photo: Markus Mainka/Shutterstock

While both those statements are 100% correct, do they really tell us anything about how we are doing to get back to pre-pandemic levels?

Need to get people back in the air

Another interesting metric is the passenger load factor which in January 2023 reached 81.5%, compared to 42.4% in 2022. That’s a stunning turnaround of matching capacity to demand and is great for airline profits, although, in January 2019, it was 82.1%, achieved with double the number of passengers.

With larger populations than in 2019, the issue now is to get more people traveling and to stimulate that airlines need to get more capacity online and cut fares. Some low-cost carriers have read the memo and are starting to do that, so hopefully, competition will take over and do what the airlines seem reluctant to do. People want to travel, and borders are open, so the market is there but is anyone going to grab the bull by the horns?

What do you think about the speed of Asia-Pacific’s recovery? Let us know in the comments.


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