Tracking the Coronavirus — Part Two: Air Travel in China & Asia

In a multi-part series, Orbital Insight brings you on-the-ground truth on how businesses, industries and markets across the world are impacted by the coronavirus contagion.

Orbital Insight’s GO Will Show as More Flights Disappear… and Return

Thousands of flights that used to crisscross the airspace in China and its region have vanished in a matter of weeks, leaving airports isolated as the coronavirus forces global airlines to restrict or stop altogether flying into Asia’s busiest travel hub.

Media reporting of data from Flightradar24 shows that over 13,000 inbound and outbound flights involving Chinese destinations were lost in just three weeks between Jan. 23 and Feb. 13.

Wuhan Airport Traffic
Above: Orbital Insight tracks geolocation foot traffic trends at the Wuhan Airport.

According to reports, American Airlines has temporarily halted flights from Los Angeles to Shanghai and Beijing; Delta Air Lines has completely paused flying into China for now; and United Airlines has reduced 24 flights between hub cities in the U.S. and China.

And as the pandemic spreads to South Korea and Japan, cuts in air travel have extended there as well. Delta has shrunk to just 15 of its typical 28 U.S. weekly flights to South Korea. Hawaiian Airlines has suspended its five-times-weekly service between Honolulu and Seoul-Incheon until April 30th. United has canceled all flights to Japan until end-April, too.

Airport Traffic Patterns Coronavirus
Above: Orbital Insight’s anonymized and aggregated geolocation data detects traffic declines in Jeju Airport.

The State Department has, meanwhile, issued a “Do Not Travel to China” advisory for all Americans.

What We’re Monitoring

While advisories and airline announcements provide timely alerts to analysts, investors and stakeholders in the travel industry, Orbital Insight’s geospatial tracking tool GO has gone further, providing our clients real-time insights into the disruptions as they occurred.

Location intelligence from anonymized device pings monitored by GO shows a plunge in traffic at China’s Shenzhen, Tianjin, Urumqi, Wuhan, Xiamen and Xian airports from the week ended January 19, as airlines began taking preventive measures amid an acceleration of the pandemic in the world’s second-largest economy.

Since early February though, our data has also indicated a slump in air travel beyond China, particularly in South Korea and Taiwan.

Aside from notable declines in traffic at other Chinese airports — including Beijing, Changsha, Chengdu, Chongqing, Haikou, Zhengzhou and Shanghai Pudong/Hongqiao — GO has also detected falling activity at regional airports in Macau, South Korea’s Jeju, and Taiwan’s Taipei Taoyuan.

Traffic at other international airports from Abu Dhabi to Vietnam have been stable.

Airport geolocation trends
Above: Abu Dhabi airport traffic is stable according to Orbital Insight GO’s geolocation capabilities.

Why Chinese Travel Matters

Visibility on China is critically important for the world as its isolation could have lasting consequences on the global economy.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus now is testing airlines and other travel companies with a risk that had not been as material since the 2008–09 financial crisis: a broad decline in travel demand.

Coronavirus Airport Traffic

Above: Orbital Insight observes a sharp decline in foot traffic from anonymized and aggregated device pings at the Wuhan Airport.

For airlines particularly, Chinese travelers account for about a fifth of all tourism spending, more than any other country, according to the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization. In 2018, Chinese residents spent $277 billion abroad, or nearly twice as much as residents of the United States, the U.N. says.

Beijing Capital Airport

Above: Beijing Capital Airport traffic has severely declined according to Orbital Insight’s geolocation data.

Until this year, air-travel demand had been growing at twice the pace of the global economy. That bright spot is now under threat. U.S. airlines and other travel stocks have tumbled more than Wall Street’s Dow and S&P indices which have suffered their biggest weekly declines since the financial crisis. Global demand for jet fuel has fallen by 500,000 barrels per day while China’s demand for crude oil itself has slumped by 25–30%.

Orbital Insight geolocation

Above: Shanghai Pudong Airport foot traffic declines as a result of the Coronavirus.

It’s still early to say what the overall loss to global travel will be from the coronavirus epidemic.

Orbital Insight South Korea Coronavirus
Above: Orbital Insight GO detects declines in foot traffic at Seoul Gimpo Airport as early as February 1.

If the coronavirus crisis is anything like the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, it could eliminate $29 billion in global airline revenue this year, resulting in a small industry contraction, the International Air Transport Association says. The vast majority of the losses would be concentrated among airlines in the Asia-Pacific region, it said.

Orbital Insight location intelligence
Above: Orbital Insight GO observes a sharp decline in foot traffic at Incheon Airport during the first week of February.

Gloria Guevara, president and chief executive of the World Travel & Tourism Council, a trade group for the world’s travel industry, says previous virus outbreaks in Asia have inflicted financial blows of up to $65 billion on the travel and tourism industries.

Orbital Insight Coronavirus Data

Above: Orbital Insight GO observes steady traffic declines at Taipei Taoyuan Airport.

Orbital Insight GO automatically tracks your area of interest — in this example 54 international airports — to track foot traffic levels to understand tourism trends and ramifications for jet fuel demand. Orbital Insight customer RBC Capital Markets applied this methodology for their Oil Strategy research.

GO subscribers can monitor the impact of the virus on traffic patterns at their customized areas of interest such as international airports and track when normal international traffic patterns resume. While this blog focused on Asian airports, GO users can use their monitoring credits to look at airports and other areas of interest to understand the impact on supply chains, tourism, commodities, and more throughout the world.

Above: Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, Iran’s largest international passenger transit hub experiences significant traffic declines prior to CDC Warnings around non-essential travel.

Coming Soon

As the U.S. braces for Coronavirus impacts in the U.S., GO has been tracking how consumer patterns and medical producers are preparing. Our next blog post will focus on some of the insights we’ve garnered based on geospatial data and give best practices to GO subscribers monitoring the contagion’s effects on global supply chains.

Back to Blog