Asia Pacific’s air travel pandemic recovery – four years later

There are a few very distinct memories that stand out from the earliest days of the pandemic. One in particular was the first piece authored by Courtney Miller for The Air Current. It ran on Feb. 10, 2020, during the first days of the Singapore Airshow that year, and was a seminal bit of foresight. Using SARS in 2003 as a baseline, it concluded that history had shown that once travel restrictions were lifted, air traffic would return within roughly 12 months.

Related: Coronavirus nearly severs U.S.-China airlink, but history suggests quick recovery

In the midst of an unprecedented global collapse in air travel that took hold weeks later and the travel restrictions that ranged from the market imposed to the government imposed, the analysis initially felt like it had aged like spoiled milk, especially as weeks turned into months, and months turned into years. In the ravages of the pandemic, the global scale of injury to the world economy — and global aviation by extension — felt unimaginably bleak. 

But, in the end, that first prognosis was right. “The risk to air travel is not the virus, rather the quarantine,” Miller wrote. The timelines for recovery were far longer, but the April 2022 removal of the mask mandate in the U.S. and the fall 2023 shift in COVID policy inside China acted as catalysts in two of the most important markets on the planet. 

Returning once again to Singapore four years later, the city-state has resumed the hustle and bustle the world had grown accustomed to inside the ultramodern southeast Asian metropolis. As a market, the first three months of scheduled and charter capacity for Changi Airport is 0.5% above the same period at the beginning of 2019, according to Cirium’s Diio, though the number of monthly seats remains about 200,000 lower on 3,000 fewer average flights. 

Some Scoot A320s and Singapore Airlines 777-300ERs sitting unused without engines are still around Changi Airport, reflecting the legacy of the pandemic. (SIA has taken 15 A350s and seven 787-10s since the pandemic’s onset.) But Singapore and its airlines have come through the other side, as has the rest of the region as the long-term growth engine for aviation. 

“We all talk about Asia Pacific globally, but they’re very different geographies, very different demographies and very different economies in the region. But by and large, it’s very strong,” said Airbus commercial aircraft CEO Christian Scherer. Intercontinental flying to and from China remains one of the last pieces of the puzzle, still off 28% from February five years ago.

Yet, in much the same way that the 2020 show teetered on the precipice of a global pandemic, 2024 underscores Singapore’s position at a strategic crossroads for the region. China’s aerospace industrial presence at the show has never been larger as it moves past the insularity of its COVID restrictions. The Comac C919 and ARJ21 are both making their international debut. China’s own military hardware is equally on display here with a Changhe Z-10, its domestically-made attack helicopter shown feet from Western military aircraft for the U.S. and Singapore.

Each aircraft is a showcase of its parent nation’s current strength, but also its future aspirations and the very real competition to sell wares to defend against the other. The paradox of aerospace, forging instruments of both war and peace, remains front and center.

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