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COVID-19 infection rates and flight operations in China and Europe

Learning from the curve: Chinese aviation may offer early signs of a COVID-19 recovery

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Flightradar24 Note: Airlines and governments have reacted to the spread of COVID-19 with varying speed and levels of restrictions. With Flightradar24 data, ICF examined flights in China, Europe, and the United States to see what lessons can be learned about the decline in air traffic. Their results below offer a sliver of hope—or cautionary tale—for what comes next.

Our skies are eerily quiet. In a few short weeks, over 100 airlines have grounded their planes, airports have shut and over 20% of the world’s population is under some form of quarantine. However, there may be a small glimpse of hope, at least for the aviation industry.

Previously, Flightradar24 explored the nearly 28% drop in global commercial flights compared to 2019, but recent data from China offers the first indications that the trend is starting to reverse, particularly for domestic flights. In this analysis we show the evolution in aircraft movements for China, Europe and the US, all from the date of the 100th identified COVID-19 case in each market, through to March 29th. We’ll first look at China and Europe, and then the emerging trends in the US.

The impacts of the travel restrictions imposed by the Chinese Government are clear in the precipitous drop in domestic flights. A decrease in international flights followed as foreign governments and airlines also withdrew capacity on Chinese routes. Just 20 days after the 100th case in China flights had reduced to 60% of 2019 levels.

Comparing China and Europe

In the months since then, the virus spread around the world and by the 23rd of February had infected over 100 people across Europe. European aircraft movements were noticeably slower to decline compared to China, and 20 days after the 100th case the number of flights had barely nudged downward. This is perhaps due to the concentration of the initial outbreak in Northern Italy and a fragmented response across the Individual member states. It was only 23 days after the 100th case, on the 16th March, that the EU imposed restrictions on non-essential travel and the number of flights significantly decreased. In contrast to China, domestic flights in Europe have been marginally less impacted than international flights and as of the 29th March declined to 35% of the 2019 level, compared to 16% of their 2019 level for international aviation. However, all indications are for further decreases as the number of infections continues to climb across Europe.

COVID-19 infection rates and flight operations in China and EuropeWhile Europe shut down, the strict measures imposed across China drove down the rate of new infections and with it the first indications of an increase in the number of flights. From the start of March, the number of domestic Chinese flights has made tentative increases, stabilising at around 50% of 2019 volumes, likely due to the continuing travel restrictions across the country. These are gradually lifting, with the Chinese Civil Aviation Authority notably resuming civil aviation flights from Hubei province at the end of March. By contrast the recovery has not registered on the international markets – undoubtedly a result of the growing infections and continuing travel restrictions around the world.

Comparing China and the United States

COVID-19 infection rates and flight operations in China and the United StatesInitially the number of flights in the US remained somewhat more resilient than other regions, with the total number still above 2019 level up to 16 days after the 100th case, while by the same point European flights had declined 2% and Chinese flights 43%. However, a steep decline in international aviation followed, beginning with the ban on most passengers from the Schengen area, which represents 11% of international US traffic. As of the 29th March, the total number of US flights has declined by 44% compared to 2019, while Europe is down by 77% compared to 2019. While there is a smaller number of cases in the US, with only just over a third compared to Europe, this is much closer when they’re adjusted for population size – there are 0.38 recorded infections per 1,000 people in the US, compared to 0.48 per 1,000 in Europe. The experience of Europe suggests that the number of flights in the US may well sink to lower levels, but perhaps we can take hope from China that the recovery will come soon after.

ICF is one of the world’s leading aviation consulting organisations, with nearly 100 aviation experts providing objective, independent commercial, financial, technical and regulatory guidance to aviation clients, including airlines, airports, lessors, financial institutions, manufacturers and governments.

If you’d like to discuss this analysis or further analysis of specific areas, please contact us at Alastair.Blanshard@icf.com and Dan.Galpin@icf.com.

To learn more about using Flightradar24 data in your work, please contact Ian Petchenik.

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