Korean airlines zoom in on China routes, target transit passengers

  • 2020-09-07

South Korean airlines are buckling down to resume flights to and from China to satisfy the demands of Korean businesspeople and overseas residents, while also zoning in on the transit market.

Korea’s No. 2 carrier Asiana Airlines announced on Sept. 7 that it will reopen weekly flight service between Incheon, Korea, and Chengdu, China from Sept. 10. The airline had suspended the route in the wake of the coronavirus. This will nudge up the number of domestic airline-operated inbound and outbound flight routes to China to 11, still well below the 60 or so routes that were offered pre-coronavirus.

Domestic airlines including Korean Air and Asiana Airlines alongside low-cost carriers have pushed for discussions with China’s aviation authority, the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC), to increase the number of routes and frequency of flights between the two countries.

Korean Air is in talks with the CAAC to provide flights between Incheon and Tianjin once a week instead of the current bi-weekly schedule. Asiana Airlines is also in discussions to resume routes connecting Incheon to other cities in China.

“There is a huge demand for China-bound flights among Korean businesspeople and overseas residents, but there aren’t enough flights to handle the demand because of CAAC’s regulations,” said a source from the local aviation industry.

China has not allowed South Korean carriers to make direct flights to Beijing since March, even after it granted eight countries — Austria, Cambodia, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Pakistan, Sweden and Taiwan — direct flights to Beijing from Sept. 3.

Social distancing measures put in place by the government as part of Covid-19 prevention also factor into the insufficient ticket supply on China routes. Only  70-75% of total seats can be booked, making it more difficult for passengers to secure tickets.


Incheon International Airport empty during summer peak-travel season

Amid looming uncertainty, Korean airlines are ramping up to grab transit passengers from China. On Aug. 31, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport announced that it would permit visa-free passengers from China to transit through Incheon International Airport when heading to a third country such as the US or in Europe.

When the coronavirus broke out in February, the transportation ministry banned incoming passengers from China to travel through Incheon Airport without a visa. This prompted travelers to use nearby airports in Japan or Hong Kong, alongside foreign airlines such as Cathay Pacific, which allowed visa-free entry.

“There are no direct flights between the US and China, meaning high demand of China-bound passengers who want to transit through Korea,” said an airline source. “We plan to offer various promotions to secure transit passengers,” the airline source added.

Incheon Airport’s transit rate (the ratio of transit passengers to international flight passengers) has been hovering in the mid-10% range annually since its opening in 2001, but has shot up recently following rapid recovery in transit demand.

According to the transportation ministry’s aviation data portal system, Incheon Airport’s transit rate reached 25.9% in August . In general, an airport with a transit rate of over 20% is considered to be an international hub airport.


By Kyung-min Kang


<Edited by Danbee Lee>