Absence of Chinese airlines in Australia drives up cost of flights to Europe

Want to fly to Paris in mid-September for a three-week break to enjoy the wonders of late summer in Europe? From Melbourne or Sydney you can fly economy class with a budget carrier for around $2,200, but fly with a premier league airline and you can expect to pay between $3,500 and $5 $000.

Plane tickets have exploded. In July 2022, you pay for a seat in long-haul economy class, which would almost have upgraded you to premium economy class before the pandemic. A seat in premium economy class? Expect to pay close to what a business rate would have cost in 2019.

What happened?

Rising fuel prices are part of the reason we pay more to fly to Europe, but another big factor is the lack of low-cost competition. As of May 2022, a total of 51 international airlines operated scheduled passenger services to Australia. That’s 10 less than in May 2019. Maybe that’s a big deal, but most of those airlines no longer in our skies are China-based carriers, and that’s where lies the problem.

Before the pandemic hit, these Chinese carriers gave Australian travelers plenty to cheer about. If you wanted a cheap plane ticket to Europe, either economy or business class, chances are you flew on one of these Chinese airlines. Even if you were flying with another airline, Chinese carriers were putting downward pressure on the prices other carriers could charge.

Before the pandemic, Chinese airlines had become very active in Australian aviation. Buoyed by the large number of Chinese tourists flocking to Australia – more than 1.44 million in the 12 months to November 2019, a fourfold increase from the previous decade – China’s air services to Australia exploded. In 2009, three China-based carriers served Australia. A decade later, there were nine. In addition to several daily flights to Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, they offered non-stop flights to such exotic destinations as Kunming, Chengdu, Xiamen, Hangzhou and Qingdao.

The Chinese government has even made holidays easier for Australians with 72-hour visa-free entry to 18 Chinese cities and 144-hour visa-free entry to a handful of others. Visa-free entry was straightforward. You presented yourself at the check-in counter and told the staff that you would be applying for visa-free entry. On board the plane, you fill out the arrival document, head to the visa-free counter and presto, you’re in.

Australia was keen to play ball, welcoming Chinese tourists with open arms. In December 2016, the government announced plans to offer expedited visa processing to Chinese tourists, confirming the introduction of 10-year multiple-entry visas for eligible Chinese visitors. The announcement was part of an open skies agreement negotiated between China and Australia, removing all capacity restrictions on their respective airlines.

In the first six months of 2019, the nine China-based airlines operating passenger services to Australia carried a total of 915,641 passengers. Assuming an average load of 300 passengers per plane, the transport of these passengers would have required more than 3000 flights. In the same six-month period in 2022, that number had fallen to just three carriers and they carried a total of 22,251 passengers. That’s a quarter of the number flown to and from Australia on a single Chinese carrier, China Southern Airlines, in January 2019 alone.

In their absence, the remaining carriers seized the opportunity and raised prices on their European flights. Who could blame them? The last few years have been dry, they are heavily indebted and they are benefiting from an increase in demand coupled with a constricted supply.

Will Chinese carriers return?

Not before the Chinese government allows its citizens to travel abroad freely, and for now they can only do so for essential reasons. Even when those restrictions are relaxed, Australia might not be in the frame. The Chinese government was quick to militarize the vast number of its citizens who travel overseas, turning off the tap on travelers at will, and right now Australia is in China’s sin bin. If we are to return to China’s warm embrace, we would need to seal our lips, bow to the demands of a more powerful and aggressive China, and eat humble dumplings. So better get used to paying more for your plane ticket if you want to visit Europe. On the plus side, no international tourists from China means cheaper accommodation in Asia.

See also: Aussies flock to Europe unrestricted for northern summer

See also: Ten key tips for surviving today’s travel chaos

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