Will Chinas aviation industry be ready for the Olympic Games?

Press Release

The General Administration of Civil Aviation of

China (CAAC) last week suspended some scheduled services of Air

China and China Eastern Airlines at Beijing Capital International

Airport, due to repeated delays. This was only a very small part

of total operations. But it was significant because it was part

of a programme to reduce congestion and ensure the smooth running

of the airport in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, now just

12 months away.

Other airlines have been warned about possible suspensions relating to a further 120 delayed flights to/from the capital.

Beijing is taking the Olympics very seriously, as its big opportunity to showcase the remarkable development of this now-powerful force - and the aviation sector is a critical part of the foreign experience.

Beijing Airport in particular has had real problems keeping up with demand over the last few years. This is hardly surprising, in view of the massive expansion of air travel in China since 2000. Think of it this way: 7% annual growth means a doubling in traffic each 10 years. China's domestic market has been growing at over 15% annually; that means it doubles every four years.

Beijing Airport has come under special pressure too, as CAAC policy has changed. After splitting the domestic market into three major airlines, each based at its own geographically separate hub, in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the airlines have progressively been permitted to move into the Beijing market, accentuating the expansion of services there.

Existing facilities at Beijing Airport cannot keep pace with the double-digit growth that the Chinese domestic market has shown. Beijing handled 26 million passengers in the first half of 2007, up 16% year-on-year, after last year handling 48.7 million in the full year (surging into the Top Ten global airports by passenger volume for the first time). This is well ahead of its design capacity of 35 million passengers - and the typically stronger second half year is still ahead. Many airports work at above capacity - but none experience continuing growth rates in excess of 15%.

The CAAC now forecasts average passenger traffic growth of 14% each year to 2010 and 11% from 2011 through to 2020. But unless congestion at China's main airports is addressed, this level of growth simply cannot be achieved in Beijing.

The congestion problem at the airport is so chronic that the CAAC had already ordered airlines to slash domestic services to the capital by 9% until a new terminal opens in March 2008, in time for the August 2008 Olympics. A new runway is also coming on stream from October this year, with total investment in the airport's expansion now topping USD3.3 billion. Pressure is also mounting on city officials to accelerate construction of a second airport in Beijing.

Meanwhile, Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Hainan Airlines and Shanghai Airlines are participating in a new trial express air service linking Beijing and Shanghai every 30 minutes, effective 06-Aug-07. Special check-in areas, security checks, boarding gates and baggage claim areas would be dedicated to the service at Beijing Capital International Airport and Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, to enhance airport efficiency.

But more pressure on the capital is imminent as China's airlines refine their strategies and Air China's entry into the Star Alliance will also focus international airline strategy of its partners on the capital.

Beijing is fast becoming the most important battleground for China's leading airlines and they are leaving their roots behind to set up in the city. China Eastern has established a branch (including an operating base) at Beijing, following in the footsteps of both China Southern and Hainan Airlines, both of which now have a large part of their operations focused on Beijing. The moves have helped China Southern and Hainan post good recent profits. Air China is also responding to the rising competition by promising more capacity of its own as it seeks to raise its market share to 50%. Air China is investing over USD260 million to expand its Beijing Airport facilities and will move (along with its Star Alliance partners) into the new Terminal 3 next March.

China decentralised its aviation industry in the early 1980s, establishing new airlines with separate areas of influence in major cities, to break the Beijing-centric monopoly of the CAAC. Two decades along and despite the spread of wealth along the eastern seaboard, the trend is for airlines to focus back on Beijing. How long the CAAC can permit this to continue - at least over the next 12 months - will depend mostly on whether the airport can absorb the new demand.

The CAAC stated last month that it was planning a range of initiatives to help "cool down the overheated development of air transport" in China, including limiting the number of new entrant airlines and permitting more international flying. East Star Airlines, one of several new entrants, was recently awarded rights to operate international services (to the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau initially), which could prompt a flood of similar requests, and hopefully ease some of the pressure on Beijing.

Airline inefficiency contributes to the congestion

But it is not just the expansion of the market that is creating congestion. Airline inefficiency, severely limits the potential of China's infrastructure. Its airlines have consistently underperformed the global average load factor by a large margin. Thanks to investment in better technology, the gap is closing, but there is still a long way to go before Chinese airlines match the efficiency of their foreign rivals.

In June this year, airlines operated around 6.4 million seats in and out of Beijing and 4.5 million passengers passed through the airport, implying load factors of 70%. A similar level was achieved by Hong Kong, which has a large number of Mainland carriers operating to/from the city, with lower than industry standard load factors.

For comparison, Sydney Airport handled 2.5 million passengers in June, with 3.3 million seats on offer, with airlines averaging a 73.6% load factor on services to/from Australia's busiest airport. The figures were higher still in June for Singapore (75.3% average airline load factor at the airport), Dubai (76.9%), Frankfurt (77.4%) and London Heathrow (78.9%) - all of these are major regional hub airports.

Unlike the airlines themselves, a higher average figure for airports is not necessarily good news, especially where the airport is under-capacity. It certainly does not automatically translate into a good passenger experience, as recent travellers through London Heathrow Airport would agree!

New airport capacity costs big money - and usually has a time-consuming planning and approval process.

For airports, it is often a balancing act between encouraging new airline services, but also ensuring those services are a continued success, not only for the obvious revenue impact from airlines (using the infrastructure) and their passengers (spending money in the shops), but for the overall efficient running of the airport and the effective utilisation of its capacity.

Meanwhile, the Beijing 2008 Organising Committee expects 1.7 million visitors for the Olympics, with 1.1 million domestic travelers and the remainder from overseas.

But the big crunch for airport capacity comes as visitors arrive - and particularly when they flood out as the Games end. At the Sydney 2000 Games, inbound international traffic grew 23% year-on-year in September, the month leading up to the Games, while outbound increased by 22% in the month it ended - even though the Games ended half way through the month.

As the massively important event approaches, Chinese authorities will be pushing all the policy and planning levers to make sure that the arrival and departure process runs smoothly next August. By weeding out delayed services and by using temporary halts on some domestic services, the CAAC will probably ensure that the peak periods go reasonably smoothly. But Beijing Airport planning to date suggests that the fact of undercapacity will continue to plague it up to and beyond the Olympics.