China air traffic data suggests we could beat COVID-19 by June

Mar 22, 2020

Photo: SUPChina

Editor’s Note: Close to a political op-ed piece but we decided to publish it because it does provide a methodology for determining when air services may return – a critical question everyone is asking as domestic air service start severe cutbacks in Canada.

Data shows that Chinese air traffic could be heading back to normal by April. If that is a lead indicator of the progression of COVID-19 and its impact on society, the US and Britain may be over the worst of this by June

Should we be looking to the heavens for signs that COVID-19 may be over quicker than many of us fear?

A recent article in The Economist noting the steady return of Chinese domestic air flights to nearly normal levels gives cause for cautious optimism.

“On domestic routes,” The Economist reported, “the recovery has already begun. Capacity has risen from 4.2m seats per week in late February to 8.6m now. In a filing on March 16th to OAG, a data provider, Chinese airlines increased the number they expect to offer by April from 10m to 12.6m. That would nearly match last year’s level in time for two big holidays, the Qingming festival and Labour Day.”

It is possible, as the article suggests, that the Chinese are fiddling the figures. Notoriously, they have done it before over COVID-19. Their efforts to suppress the medical evidence during the early stages of the outbreak constituted a grave disservice to their own people and the people of the wider world, but it was also a public relations disaster.

President Xi is acutely aware of the “battle of the models” between Western democracy and Chinese authoritarianism. With President Trump calling it the “Chinese virus”, and Republican Senators like Tom Cotton talking about punishing China for having “inflicted it on the world”, a fierce struggle to command the narrative is already in full swing.

If China can show that it contained the virus quickly, bringing its society and economy back to normal faster than the West did, they will tout that as evidence of the ultimate superiority of their system of rule, and they will hope that that, rather than censorship of the problem’s existence, is the lasting memory the global public is left with. So, a motive for massaging the data is certainly there.

The question is, would they really go to quite such lengths to achieve such a goal? It would be a very risky strategy. Airlines and airports are obvious transmission mechanisms for the virus. The last thing China, or anyone else, needs is a resurgence of COVID-19 just at the point it appears to be fading away. (Chinese new death rates are down to under 10 a day compared to dozens a day and rising in the United States and Britain.)

So, assuming they are motivated by rational self-interest, the return of Chinese air traffic to pre-pandemic levels might offer us hope regarding the timeline we can expect for the progression and impact of the virus in the West.

In China, COVID-19 had already taken hold around the beginning of the year. In the United States and Britain, it kicked off in earnest about 6 weeks later. You can debate the epidemic’s exact commencement dates (for country comparisons see data sets here). But, in rough and ready form, that’s about the size of it.

So, if we do use Chinese air traffic data as a lead indicator for a return to normality we would probably be looking at late May/June for a similar pattern to emerge over here.

Again, we need to be cautious. “The government owns stakes in three of the four big Chinese carriers, and could tell them to fly mostly empty planes at a loss, to restore connectivity between cities and facilitate an economic recovery,” The Economist article warned. “Nonetheless, Chris Tarry, a consultant, suggests that the schedule changes are motivated at least in part by a genuine rise in expected demand,” the article added.

We shall see. But amid all the gloom, China’s skies may be one place to look for hope.

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