Surging demand for China flights gives travel industry new hope

Air China's net loss may worsen to 5.5 billion yuan in the second quarter.
Air China's net loss may worsen to 5.5 billion yuan in the second quarter.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China's biggest airlines could provide some much-needed encouragement for an aviation industry starved of good news when they report earnings later this week.

While the coronavirus will still likely saddle Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines with losses for the latest quarter, financial statements from the so-called Big Three may point to a nascent recovery in air travel thanks to demand in their vast domestic market.

July traffic figures were promising, with passenger numbers for the three airlines rising about 25 per cent from June as travel within China picked up. The trio flew a total of 22 million passengers domestically last month, more than 500 times as many flown at all by Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways, which has no home market to fall back on. Revenue passenger kilometres also jumped, though the numbers remain far below a year ago, pre-pandemic.

After being the first hit by Covid-19, which erupted in Wuhan in January, China is emerging from the crisis; it's the only major economy on track to expand this year. Businesses have reopened and people are traveling again after the government eased restrictions on movement, including for inter-provincial group tours. The FTSE China A 600 Travel & Leisure Index has climbed about 60 per cent in three months.

Popular Chinese destinations include Jiuzhaigou, famous for its colorful lakes, and Yangshuo and cities such as Chengdu, Shanghai and Beijing. Some places are receiving almost three times the number of visitors than last quarter, HSBC Holdings analysts led by Parash Jain wrote in a note dated Aug 17, citing Trip.com data. Hotels have also become busier after the curbs were lifted. Occupancy rates in Shanghai reached 65.8 per cent in the Aug 9-15 week compared with just 6 per cent in February, state-run China Daily reported on Monday (Aug 24), citing the local government.

"This should boost load factors further and allow airlines to improve yields, a key profit driver," Mr Jain said, noting that Chinese carriers generate most profit on domestic routes. "Domestic traffic has been consistently showing signs of a recovery, while international traffic has still to take off meaningfully due to hurdles from travel restrictions and quarantine requirements," he said.

Some carriers including China Eastern have offered ticket deals that allow unlimited flights, sacrificing some of their bottom line to lure customers back. OAG Aviation Worldwide said scheduled capacity in Asia's biggest economy reached 15.6 million seats this week, only around 8 per cent lower than toward the end of January when the outbreak began. By contrast, US capacity is still down 43.1 per cent from January at 11.8 million seats.

Mr Jain said passenger capacity could grow this month compared with August last year, a striking turnaround given how hard the virus hit. The damage has been so grave that the International Air Transport Association doesn't expect the world's airlines to recover to pre-pandemic levels before 2024.

While the July traffic reports from the Big 3 showed an improvement at home, their international passenger traffic was still down 96 per cent or more from a year earlier. The carriers also took a beating in the first quarter with a combined loss of 14 billion yuan (S$2.78 billion) and, according to Mr Jain, they're headed for a full-year loss of 24.2 billion yuan.

CHEAP JET FUEL

Second-quarter figures, which the three are due to release on Friday, should show an improvement from January-March thanks to higher passenger traffic and the yuan's resilience against the dollar, Jain said.

 
 

Lower oil prices could also help numb some of the pain. Jet fuel fell to less than US$20 a barrel in May and is likely to average $45 in 2020, according to Paul Yong, a Singapore-based aviation analyst at DBS Group Holdings.

"With revenue from domestic routes making up about two-thirds of total revenue for China's Big 3 and with relatively low jet fuel prices, this should help them outperform their Asian peers that have higher international route exposure," Mr Yong said.

Mr Yong has buy ratings on the Hong Kong-listed shares of all three carriers, as well as the mainland-listed stock of Air China and China Eastern. He has a hold recommendation on China Southern's Shanghai-listed shares. The Big Three are overwhelmingly rated buy or equivalent by analysts tracked by Bloomberg.

Shanghai-based Spring Airlines has also had a strong run on the stock market, outperforming all others on a gauge of carriers in the Asia-Pacific region with a gain of 23 per cent so far this quarter. The budget airline is also due to report earnings at the end of this week.

 
 
 
 

Air China's net loss may worsen to 5.5 billion yuan in the second quarter as the virus enveloped the period and a second wave emerged in Beijing. Domestic traffic is recovering well, but Air China is slightly more exposed than the others to international flights, analysts James Teo and Chris Muckensturm wrote this week. Cathay could add 2.5 billion yuan to Air China's 9 billion yuan first-half net loss. Air China holds a 28 per cent stake in Cathay.

China Eastern could have the biggest quarterly loss at 6.5 billion yuan due to slower capacity recovery and weaker yields. The airline is more reliant than its peers on business travelers, who have been slower to return, and its revenue could slide 72 per cent from a year earlier.Its unlimited weekend travel pass offer may lift its load factor but could pressure yields in the second half.First-half net loss could reach 10.4 billion yuan.

China Southern's second-quarter net loss may come in around 6.3 billion yuan as international travel is still limited. Cargo could be a bright spot as volumes and pricing improved due to a shortage of capacity and demand for medical shipments worldwide. China Southern is the only major state-owned carrier that hasn't sold its air cargo business. Expect a first-half operating loss of 11.3 billion yuan.