Where Can You Fly Right Now? U.S. Grabs China’s Short-Lived Aviation Lead

Where Can You Fly Right Now? U.S. Grabs China’s Short-Lived Aviation Lead

The U.S. has taken the lead in the global aviation recovery from China, where a Covid-19 outbreak in Guangdong province has undone months of steady growth in air traffic.

Airlines in the U.S. are taking advantage of a vaccine rollout that’s reached 52% of the population. Looser restrictions have made domestic air travel an almost-routine experience, save for the facemasks, with capacity for flights within the country at about 84% of 2019 levels, based on data from flight-tracking firm OAG.

Until recently, China set the standard, with domestic travel powering a comeback that’s stood above 2019 levels for most of this year. After bringing the virus under control in the first half of 2020, the world’s most populous country was able to quickly restart its economy and went on to displace the U.S. as the world’s largest air-travel market.

Where Can You Fly Right Now? U.S. Grabs China’s Short-Lived Aviation Lead

That progress has reversed with the arrival of the Delta variant of the coronavirus first identified in India. Officials in southern China’s Guangdong instituted a lockdown late last month, requiring people to show a negative Covid-19 test before leaving the capital Guangzhou, a major hub for transportation, manufacturing and shipping. Now more overall capacity is being offered in the U.S., based on OAG data.

“Asia finds itself in a difficult position, with some short spikes occurring and also the vaccine rollout in many markets behind the rest of the developed world,” said John Grant, chief analyst at OAG.

The curbs have dragged down airline activity, with Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines Co. feeling the brunt of the drop-off. Just last year, Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport knocked Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International off its perch as the world’s busiest hub

Where Can You Fly Right Now? U.S. Grabs China’s Short-Lived Aviation Lead

What’s Happening in Air Travel This Week

Global aviation capacity showed little sign of movement in the most recent week, and stands at 60% of 2019 levels, according to Bloomberg’s weekly flight tracker, which uses OAG data to monitor the pulse of the comeback. 

The U.S. has pulled up the average, with airlines adding seats, raising prices and ordering more planes to keep up with the robust rebound ahead of the peak summer travel season. The U.S. outperformance is marginally better for planemaker Boeing Co. than its European rival Airbus SE, said George Ferguson, an analyst with Bloomberg Industries.

The U.S. planemaker scored a 34-jet add-on order for the 737 Max from Southwest Airlines Co. this week. India and China, markets where the Max is still shut out, are meanwhile weakening. Airbus has relied on those two countries to anchor deliveries during the pandemic.

Where Can You Fly Right Now? U.S. Grabs China’s Short-Lived Aviation Lead

Despite China’s drop, airline capacity there is still off less than 1% compared with pre-pandemic levels, leaving it well ahead of all major aviation markets by that measure. China domestic capacity stands at 15.6 million, compared with 13.9 million this time two years ago. While the U.S. gap is shrinking, activity there remains 20% below 2019 levels. Europe has awakened from near dormancy as countries like France start to loosen border controls, though it is still down 59%.

Vaccines Vs “Covid-Free”

The two leading aviation markets have taken a diverging approach to controlling the outbreak and getting their economies back on track. The U.S. has focused on rapid vaccine deployment, while China instituted strict lockdowns to quickly quell the disease in early 2020.

China has since then had periodic flareups that led to targeted lockdowns and restrictions on movement. Air traffic suffered a hit this February during the peak travel period of Lunar New Year, when the government encouraged people to stay at home as it tried to stamp out an outbreak in the northeast.

Where Can You Fly Right Now? U.S. Grabs China’s Short-Lived Aviation Lead

In the European Union, the reliance on inoculations will be put to the test in coming weeks, as governments begin to ease restrictions on movement within the bloc and individual countries reopen trans-Atlantic links. Government officials in the U.K., where the Delta variant has become dominant, have already backtracked on a loosening of border rules, drawing the ire of airline executives.

“There's going to be a sort of bumpy exit but the direction is undeniable in terms of traffic being restored,” KLM Chief Executive Officer Pieter Elbers said in an online event Wednesday. He said he expects European traffic to approach the levels of U.S. and Chinese domestic markets within three to four weeks.

The issue will become more pressing now for the U.S., where airlines have thrived on international trade and tourism, said OAG’s Grant.

While the U.S. eased travel advisories this week, and Americans can go wherever they'll be welcomed, the Biden administration hasn’t yet lifted restrictions set in place since last March that bar entry for the vast majority of Europeans. That could be changing soon, with the White House saying on Wednesday that it was forming working groups to reopen international travel with Canada, Mexico, the EU and the U.K.

The U.S. remains off-limits to most people from a host of other places, including China, Brazil, South Africa and India. 

Given more than half its population now has at least one shot, if the U.S. isn’t prepared to re-open, it could be sending this message to other countries, according to Grant: “Don’t open your doors until you have higher levels of vaccination.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.