China is set to become the world’s biggest aviation market in five years thanks in part to hefty subsidies from local governments beseeching airlines to fly mainland tourists overseas.
Local governments, especially those outside mega cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, spent at least 8.6bn yuan ($1.3bn) subsidising airlines in 2016, mostly for them to start direct services to far-flung places such as New York and Paris, according to data compiled by Civil Aviation Data Analysis. These payments, to both Chinese and foreign carriers, equate to close to half the 19.49bn yuan in profits earned by the top four mainland-based airlines last year, according to the consultancy known as Cadas.
“In addition to a growing need for international exchange resulting from China’s economic development, local governments’ increased subsidies are driving Chinese carriers’ global route expansion,” Shanghai-based Cadas said in a report released Thursday.
As economic growth and rising incomes led China to become the largest source of outbound travellers, major airports in Beijing and Shanghai have been stretched beyond their capacity. The top three state airlines – Air China Ltd, China Eastern Airlines Corp and China Southern Airlines Co – have depleted their quota for direct services to foreign destinations from major Chinese cities, and countries including Australia and the UK have allowed more flights to and from China.
The battleground for long-haul flights has shifted to lower-tier cities, where state and private carriers like Hainan Airlines Holding Co are offering international flights at low fares. Such flights would hardly make any money without government subsidies, according to Cadas.
Several carriers have expressed concern over the handouts. Air China’s finance chief Xiao Feng has said heavily-subsidised direct flights from lower-tier Chinese cities are “unsustainable.”
Foreign airlines have also started to pull out of smaller cities, citing unsatisfactory performance. British Airways Plc cancelled direct flights to London from the Chengdu in western China after three years of service. United Continental Holdings Inc ditched Hangzhou and scrapped its seasonal flights between San Francisco and the western Chinese city of Xi’an.
“Airlines still face significant operational risks even if their long-haul international flights from second-tier Chinese cities are subsidised,” Cadas said. “Rather than bringing in more foreigners to China, local governments are subsidising Chinese outbound travel, with little positive economic impact on local economies.”