Hong Kong ‘loses its status as an international hub’ as a reaction to China’s zero-COVID policy


Long before individual Chinese mainland airports began their rapid growth in the late 1990s, Hong Kong International (HKIA) was like a beacon for the entire region as a gateway to China and indeed, to much of North and Southeast Asia.

But the prolonged pandemic in China and Hong Kong, and the vain attempts there to achieve 'zero COVID' by locking people up for months on end, have dealt the airport and Cathay Pacific a body blow such that neither appears to have the wherewithal to bounce back from the canvas, according to IATA's Director General Willie Walsh.

This report adds some statistical meat to Mr Walsh's concerns and concludes that he is right.

  • Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) and Cathay Pacific have suffered a significant decline in capacity, with both lagging their September 2019 levels by approximately 85%.
  • The prolonged pandemic and strict lockdown measures in China and Hong Kong have led to a loss of international hub status for HKIA.
  • The recovery of the aviation industry as a whole is threatened if Beijing continues its restrictions into the next year.
  • Cathay Pacific's seat capacity remains at only 16% of its 2019 levels, with a limited number of nonstop destinations compared to its competitors.
  • HKIA's seat capacity outlook is worse than that of Cathay Pacific, with only 14% of its 2019 levels in September 2022.
  • Hong Kong is far behind its peer airports in terms of capacity recovery, and it should aim to match the level and speed of recovery seen in Dubai.


  • IATA's Mr Walsh claims Hong Kong has lost its international hub status as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in China.
  • Both the airport (HKIA) and Cathay Pacific lag their Sep-2019 capacity by approximately 85% - more than two and a half years after the global COVID-19 health crisis began.
  • The entire industry recovery is threatened - recovery from the pandemic would be slowed if Beijing continued its restrictions into next year.
  • Hong Kong is well behind its peers, and if and when some normality is restored it ought to aim to match the level and speed of recovery at Dubai.

IATA's Willie Walsh - 'zero-COVID' policy has robbed Hong Kong of its hub status

IATA director general Willie Walsh, attending an International Air Transport Association (IATA) conference in Doha, stated that Hong Kong had lost its status as an international hub due to China's 'zero-corona policy.'

Both mainland China and the Special Administrative Area of Hong Kong have been subject to repeated lockdowns and travel restrictions, some of which continue, with new city-regions being targeted on account of only a handful of new cases of the virus being notified.

Mr Walsh made the remarks in the same week that US President Joe Biden declared "COVID is over" in his own country (although statistics suggest it is anything but).

It is true, though, that US aviation has all but returned to normal now, whereas it most definitely has not done so in China and some other parts of Asia.

Blaming government policies rather than the virus itself (an interesting stance given that the original source of the virus has never been established and may never be), Mr Walsh said: "Cathay Pacific is no longer what it used to be. Hong Kong has already lost its position as an international hub, and other hubs have gained the advantage, so [Hong Kong] will have a hard time regaining its position".

He added that IATA had been closely watching for signs of easing restrictions in China, noting: "It obviously affects the overall strength of the recovery".

Entire industry recovery is threatened by Chinese limbo

Mr Walsh warned that the industry's recovery from the pandemic would be slowed if Beijing continued its restrictions next year. China is the world's second largest economy.

Hong Kong is historically a major hub between North and Southeast Asia, and where passengers transit between international and intercontinental flights and onwards to journeys to and from China - effectively a gateway to the mainland. It fulfils a variety of roles.

In contrast, the pace of the recovery in global passenger demand has picked up during the northern hemisphere summer, with airline executives attributing higher than expected demand to a surge of people keen to travel after two years of restrictions.

Cathay Pacific at only 16% of 2019 seat capacity

Cathay Pacific's demise is well represented when seat capacity offered in the years 2019-2022 is considered.

Cathay Pacific: weekly total system seats capacity, 2019-2022

Capacity has barely risen above what it was in 2020 or 2021, and is still only 16% of what it was in the comparable week of 2019.

The annual seat capacity shortfall is perhaps better illustrated in the chart below, which measures it from 2012 through to 2023.

Cathay Pacific: annual system seats, capacity/growth, 2012-2023*

Cathay Pacific currently has only 48 nonstop destinations on its network and 47 nonstop freight destinations.

That compares unfavourably with 72 passenger destinations for Singapore Airlines and 128 for Emirates Airline at the airline's Dubai hub - it is reasonable to bring Dubai into the debate as it began to challenge Hong Kong and Singapore as an east-west hub/transit point many decades ago.

The impact of the loss of seats has been most keenly felt in North American, European, South Asian and Middle Eastern markets.

For all the problems in Asia, there is still some capacity in Northeast and Southeast Asia, and the greatest number of seats in the week commencing 19-Sep-2022 is to and from China, although it amounts to only 15,829 seats.

Cathay still the largest airline in Hong Kong

Hong Kong International Airport amounts to more than Cathay Pacific, but Cathay does remain the largest airline there for now, with 40.1% of capacity and 34% of movements in the week commencing 19-Sep-2022.

Seats are split broadly 50:50 between local airlines and foreign ones - which can be interpreted either as support from the foreign community or as a measure of Cathay Pacific's fall.

Despite the trials and tribulations of COVID-19, China in general remains the largest country market out of Hong Kong

HKIA's seat capacity outlook is even worse than for the airline, with only 14% in the week commencing 19-Sep-2022 compared to the same week in 2019.

As with the airline, Northeast and Southeast Asia are the main markets; China is still the biggest of them all, with 26,145 seats, followed by Taiwan, despite the continuing clampdowns in China.

Hong Kong International Airport: international departing seats by country/territory, week commencing 19-Sep-2022

Hong Kong is well behind its peers in capacity recovery

It is useful in this context to compare Hong Kong with other cities which might have retained their 'status' more appreciably. Those cities (and their respective main airports) are: Singapore, Bangkok, Seoul, Tokyo and Dubai.

In each case the seat capacity in the week commencing 19-Sep-2022 is recorded as a comparison to the same week of 2019, before the pandemic.

So in Hong Kong's case it is 14%, as above.

The second measure is of the percentage of seats that are attributed to the main home-based international/intercontinental airline or airlines.

Comparison of HKIA with peer airports, 2029 versus 2022, and comparison of seats on the main home-based airline(s)


Percentage of seats

in week commencing 19-Sep-2022

compared to week commencing 23-Sep-2019

Percentage of seats

on main home-based airline(s)

Those airlines

Hong Kong



Cathay Pacific




Singapore Airlines

Bangkok Suvarnabhumi



Thai Airways

Seoul Incheon



Korean Air & Asiana Airlines

Tokyo Haneda



All Nippon Airways &

Japan Airlines

Dubai International








The second column, comparing seat capacity over four years 2019-2022, is unequivocal.

Hong Kong is far and away the worst performer in regaining capacity. The surprising statistic here perhaps comes from Seoul, which appeared to have been as badly affected by the virus as Hong Kong when CAPA investigated it earlier this year, but which has managed a 20 percentage point advantage over Hong Kong in the recovery stakes.

See related CAPA report: Incheon Airport's 30-year expansion ends with USD4 billion 4th phase

The third column's interpretation is somewhat vaguer. A greater percentage of seats on non-home-based airlines might suggest that those foreign airlines have greater confidence in the destination, irrespective of the continuing implications of the pandemic.

In this instance Hong Kong scores quite well; with 60% of seats not on the main home-based airline, but then two of the peer airports have more than one main international airline. Thus, the result here is somewhat inconclusive.

Dubai is the 'benchmark' for the next year or so

The benchmark that Hong Kong should perhaps look at matching over the next 12 months - if it wishes to retrieve the 'status' it has relinquished - is Dubai, which has a full 70 (seventy) percentage point advantage in regained capacity over Hong Kong, and almost 30 percentage points over the average of all the airports in the group.

Overall, there are few arguments that can be made to counter Mr Walsh's assertions.

What matters now is how quickly HKIA can regain that lost status, and even if it can at all.

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