Chinese airlines halt transfer routes from Africa, other regions amid Omicron variant
Stopping transfers
Published: Dec 01, 2021 12:59 AM
An airplane takes off from the Beijing Capital International Airport. File Photo: VCG

An airplane takes off from the Beijing Capital International Airport. File Photo: VCG

After China Southern Airlines first announced that it would suspend transfer routes from 37 countries, mostly in Africa, to China, another carrier in China also confirmed on Wednesday that it too would follow suit, in an apparent adjustment in light of the Omicron strain of COVID-19.

Sichuan Airlines, another major service operator to Africa, announced that it would suspend transfer routes from nine countries, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, and Seychelles, to China via Egypt. The decision will come into effect on Saturday. 

China Southern also said that it will suspend transfer routes from 37 countries to China starting Tuesday, including 24 countries in Africa such as Ghana, Guinea and Ethiopia, seven countries in Asia, three countries in Europe and three countries in Central and South America.

Both airlines cited pandemic prevention as the reason for the action, with China Southern suggesting that overseas passengers refer to specific COVID-19 related policies and requirements posted by local Chinese diplomatic and consular missions before traveling.

Data from information provider VariFlight sent to the Global Times showed that from November 1 to 28, there were 37 flights from China to Africa, primarily operated by China Southern Airlines, Sichuan Airlines, Air China, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and Egypt Airlines.

The number of flights has not decreased as data also showed that 47 passenger flights with 10 routes are scheduled to fly from China to Africa in December, including from Guangzhou in South China's Guangdong Province and Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province. 

A source from Guangdong-based China Southern told the Global Times that the direct route from Changsha, Central China's Hunan Province to Nairobi in Kenya is "operating as normal."

Although there has been no news about suspending direct flights between China and Africa, it is clear that Chinese airlines are preparing for a new round of adjustments caused by the emerging Omicron strain of COVID-19.

During a press briefing on China's epidemic control and prevention measures on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the National Health Commission said that the pressure to avoid imported cases of COVID-19 is increasing, especially as the omicron variant has already appeared across multiple countries and regions.

The moves by the airlines followed border closures and new quarantine arrangements announced by several countries, including the US, the UK and Israel, for international travelers amid the unfolding Omicron outbreak.

So far, more than 20 countries and regions have issued or are preparing to introduce entry restrictions on flights and passengers from southern African countries, which will further impact the recovery of global aviation demand. 

On Monday, the Japanese government announced that it would prohibit foreigners from entering Japan from Tuesday. Australia originally planned to open its borders to international students and skilled immigrants from Wednesday, but has now postponed reopening to December 15. 

Although routes to Africa accounts for only a small part of global international travel, the sudden border restrictions have cast uncertainty over near-term planning for major airlines.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimates that the contribution of tourism to the world economy this year will reach $1.9 trillion, a slight increase from last year's $1.6 trillion, but still far below the $3.5 trillion in 2019.

"The Omicron variant hurts travel confidence," Qi Qi, a market watcher told the Global Times on Wednesday, especially when global travel confidence has witnessed a slow recovery compared with previous years. 

In China, where the number of international flights is still being restricted, with the number of international flights now at an almost record low, market watchers believe that the Omicron variant will have only limited impact on China's existing available services to overseas markets, given cautious border opening polices. But it may further delay the restart of international flights in China. 

Market watchers warned that the impact on the domestic aviation market depends on the epidemic situation.

Notably, after the announcement of new local confirmed cases in Shanghai, more than 30 percent of the flights on the Shanghai-Shenzhen route were cancelled on Friday, and the Shanghai travel bureau said that starting from December 25, all travel agencies and online travel companies will be required to suspend the inter-provincial group travel services.