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You’re Grounded: The COVID-19 Effect on Global Flight Capacity

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Global Flight Capacity 6 Apr Update

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You’re Grounded: The COVID-19 Effect on Flight Capacity

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the world into a tailspin.

As the number of new cases continues to surge in parts of the world, numbers are beginning to decline in others as public health officials and governments tirelessly work to slow the contagion and reach of the virus.

The potent combination of trip cancellations and country-specific restrictions on international flights has had a staggering impact on the $880 billion global airline industry. Today’s visualization highlights data from the OAG Aviation Worldwide, which tracks how global flight capacity differs from last year’s numbers.

Note: this post has been updated on April 7, 2020 to reflect the latest data.

Asia Faced the First Hard Landing

Nearly all countries have some type of travel advisory in place, with many encouraging people to avoid non-essential travel even before COVID-19 was officially considered a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The earliest impacts of these were felt in February, as flight capacity in and out of China dropped sharply around Lunar New Year. Also, the country’s sharpest year-over-year drop was recorded on February 17, 2020, with a 71% drop in flights compared to the same date in 2019. However, there’s some good news: life in China is slowly returning back to normal, as Wuhan eases its lockdown after almost two and a half months.

Flight capacity for Hong Kong, which was already seeing its traveler numbers declining due to months-long protests, continues its slump. As of April 6, 2020, scheduled flights were down by an immense 92.3% compared to 2019—the most of any Asian jurisdiction represented in the data.

India showed one of the most drastic declines, from 1.8% down to -68% on March 30, 2020. This resulted from a 21-day lockdown order on March 24, 2020—with only four hours of notice for its 1.3 billion citizens.

Monitoring the Situation Elsewhere

Meanwhile in Europe, Italy saw a 22% drop in flights coinciding with the announcement of a national lockdown March 9, 2020. Now that the situation has intensified, flights to and from Italy have plummeted 89% from their normal rates.

Germany and Spain are seeing the highest declines in scheduled flights worldwide, with approximately 92.6% less capacity as of April 6, 2020. Flight capacity in the region has plummeted thanks to widespread restrictions.

On March 11, 2020, the U.S. enforced a 30-day ban on travelers from the Schengen Area, a free-travel zone consisting of 26 countries in Europe, and has since extended to include the UK and Ireland. As a result, U.S. flight capacity is beginning its descent, dropping 45.2% by April 6, 2020 as the ban may be extended, and to even more countries.

Meanwhile, as of March 17, the U.S.-Canada border is closed for all non-essential travel. This follows a previous announcement from the Canadian government that it would be curbing entry to only Canadian citizens, family members, permanent residents, diplomats, and Americans.

Broadly speaking, countries around the world are taking similar actions to limit the spread of the virus and “flatten the curve”:

Measure TakenExample Countries*
Suspending flights from specific countries🇺🇸United States, 🇹🇷Turkey
Returning citizens must enter through specific airports🇨🇦Canada, 🇺🇸United States
Mandatory screening🇮🇹Italy, 🇧🇴Bolivia
14 day self-quarantine 🇮🇱Israel, 🇬🇷Greece
Complete closure of borders🇬🇹Guatemala, 🇵🇪Peru

*As of March 17, 2020

More Turbulent Times Ahead?

As both COVID-19 and the global response to it continues to evolve, here are the largest flight capacity reductions across different regions in the past few weeks, compared to a baseline from Jan 20, 2020:

Region20 Jan 2020 Flights23 Mar 2020 Flights30 Mar 2020 Flights06 Apr 2020 Flights% Change (6 Apr vs 30 Mar)
Western Europe18,606,4247,595,2643,840,5362,476,034-35.5%
North America22,644,12122,236,62517,221,75111,658,243-32.3%
Eastern/Central Europe3,701,2411,176,1391,930,5461,393,600-27.8%
Central America2,444,3832,040,6771,548,4581,135,163-26.7%
Upper South America1,737,7131,011,930673,016513,056-23.8%
Southeast Asia10,866,6236,177,0934,810,9453,856,977-19.8%
South Asia5,160,9584,245,6351,538,9181,371,156-10.9%
Middle East4,930,0302,580,4661,760,8091,619,546-8.0%
Northeast Asia25,278,59413,782,87912,465,26711,730,667-5.9%

Source: OAG

Naturally, the economic impact on airlines has been immense. Many airlines worldwide face the threat of bankruptcy in coming months, if these declining trends continue. To hedge against these domino effects of the outbreak, U.S. airlines are requesting upwards of $60 billion in bailouts and direct assistance from the government.

COVID-19 is throwing everything up in the air—including the fate of airline companies. It’s not yet clear when these stringent travel restrictions may be lifted, but one can only hope that these airlines do not have to continue to weather the storm much longer.

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Markets

China’s Economy: 40 Years of Soaring Exports

China’s economy today is completely different than 40 years ago; in 2021 the country makes up the highest share of exports globally.

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China's Economy

Animated Chart: 40 Years of Soaring Exports in China

China has the second highest GDP in the world, and it exports 15% of all the world’s goods. But how did this come to be?

A mere 40 years ago, China’s economy was in an entirely different situation, making up less than 1% of global exports and still in the infancy stages of building its economy. The above animated chart from the UNCTAD showcases China’s rise to global trade dominance over time.

Timeline: The Rise to Power

The China of the mid-20th century looks remarkably different when compared to the modern-day nation. Prior to the 1980s, China was going through a period of social upheaval, poverty, and dictatorship under Mao Zedong.

The 1970s

Beginning in the late 1970s, China’s share of global exports stood at less than 1%. The country had few trade hubs and little industry. In 1979, for example, Shenzhen was a city of just around 30,000 inhabitants.

In fact, China (excluding Taiwan* and Hong Kong) did not even show up in the top 10 global exporters until 1997 when it hit a 3.3% share of global exports.

YearShare of Global ExportsRank
20004.0%#7
20057.3%#3
201010.3%#1
201513.7%#1
202014.7%#1

*Editor’s note: The above data comes from the UN, which lists Taiwan as a separate region of China for political reasons.

The 1980s

In the 1980s, several cities and regions, like the Pearl River Delta, were designated as Special Economic Zones. These SEZs had tax incentives that worked to attract foreign investment.

Additionally, in 1989, the Coastal Development Strategy was implemented to use strategic regions along the country’s coast as catalysts for economic development.

The 1990s and Onwards

By the 1990s, the world saw the rise of global value chains and transnational production lines, with China offering a cheap manufacturing hub due to low labor costs.

Rounding out the ‘90s, the Western Development Strategy was implemented in 1999, dubbed the “Open Up the West” program. This program worked to build up infrastructure and education to retain talent in China’s economy, with the goal of attracting further foreign investment.

Finally, China officially joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 which allowed the country to progress full steam ahead.

Made in China

Today China is a trade giant and manufacturing behemoth. Only the U.S. and Germany come close to its share of global exports, sitting at 8.1% and 7.8% respectively.

RankCountryShare of Global Exports (2020)
#1🇨🇳 China14.7%
#2🇺🇸 U.S. 8.1%
#3🇩🇪 Germany7.8%
#4🇳🇱 Netherlands3.8%
#5🇯🇵 Japan3.6%
#6🇭🇰 Hong Kong SAR3.1%
#7🇰🇷 South Korea2.9%
#8🇮🇹 Italy2.8%
#9🇫🇷 France2.8%
#10🇧🇪 Belgium2.4%

China’s manufacturing industry has become dominant in producing just about anything from commonplace household items to integral pieces in automotive manufacturing. Some staples of Chinese manufacturing are:

  • Precision instruments
  • Semiconductors
  • Industrial machinery for computers and smartphones

COVID-19 made China’s integral role in the global economy even more visceral, as major delays in the supply chain occurred when the virus hit the country.

An Economic Superpower

In 2021, China’s trade recovery from the crisis has bested most other countries—in Q1 2021, its exports grew by almost 50% compared to the previous year’s quarter, to around $710 billion.

And the country is not slowing down any time soon. Further plans for economic development are well under way, like Made in China 2025, with the goal of becoming a dominant player in global high-tech manufacturing. Additionally, the famous One Belt, One Road initiative has been funding infrastructure projects globally over the past decade, and the country is also a founding member of the RCEP—which is soon to be the world’s biggest trading bloc.

However, China still faces a series of challenges, such as:

  • Population decline
  • The onset of labor saving technology
  • Trade wars with U.S. and sanctions from other trade partners, like Europe
  • The emergence of ASEAN trade powers, like Vietnam

A declining population has many implications like a shrinking workforce and domestic market. Additionally, many companies are setting up shop in less costly manufacturing hubs like Vietnam.

Furthermore, inexpensive innovations in labor-saving technologies, such as robotics and automation, have already begun to undermine the cheap manual labor that has made China the world’s manufacturer.

All of these elements and more could potentially spell a slowing of growth in China’s export dominance. However, while the future for China may not be certain, currently, global trade and production could not function without it.

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Markets

RCEP Explained: The World’s Biggest Trading Bloc Will Soon be in Asia-Pacific

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) covers 30% of global GDP and population. Here’s everything you need to know about it.

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RCEP Explained: The World’s Biggest Trading Bloc

Trade and commerce are the lifeblood of the global economy. Naturally, agreements among nations in a certain geographical area help facilitate relationships in ways that are ideally beneficial for everyone involved.

In late 2020, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was signed, officially creating the biggest trade bloc in history. Here, we break down everything you need to know about it, from who’s involved to its implications.

Who’s in the RCEP, and Why Was it Created?

The RCEP is a free trade agreement between 15 nations in the Asia-Pacific region, and has been formalized after 28 rounds of discussion over eight years.

Member nations who are a part of the RCEP will benefit from lowered or completely eliminated tariffs on imported goods and services within the region in the next 20 years. Here are the countries which have signed on to be member nations:

CountryPopulation (M)Nominal GDP ($B)
🇦🇺 Australia25.7$1,359
🇧🇳 Brunei0.5$12
🇰🇭 Cambodia15.7$26
🇨🇳 China1404$14,723
🇮🇩 Indonesia270.2$1,060
🇯🇵 Japan125.8$5,049
🇰🇷 South Korea51.8$1,631
🇱🇦 Laos7.3$19
🇲🇾 Malaysia32.9$338
🇲🇲 Myanmar53.2$81
🇳🇿 New Zealand5.1$209
🇵🇭 Philippines108.8$362
🇸🇬 Singapore5.8$340
🇹🇭 Thailand69.8$502
🇻🇳 Vietnam97.4$341
RCEP Total2,274.2M$26,052B

Source: IMF

But there is still some work to do to bring the trade agreement into full effect.

Signing the agreement, the step taken in late 2020, is simply an initial show of support for the trade agreement, but now it needs to be ratified. That means these nations still have to give their consent to be legally bound to the terms within the RCEP. Once the RCEP is ratified by three-fifths of its signatories—a minimum of six ASEAN nations and three non-ASEAN nations—it will go ahead within 60 days.

So far, it’s been ratified by China, Japan, Thailand, and Singapore as of April 30, 2021. At its current pace, the RCEP is set to come into effect in early 2022 as all member nations have agreed to complete the ratification process within the year.

Interestingly, in the midst of negotiations in 2019, India pulled out of the agreement. This came after potential concerns about the trade bloc’s impacts on its industrial and agricultural sectors that affect the “lives and livelihoods of all Indians”. India retains the option to rejoin the RCEP in the future, if things change.

The Biggest Trading Blocs, Compared

When we say the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is the biggest trade bloc in history, this statement is not hyperbole.

The RCEP will not only surpass existing Asia-Pacific trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in size and scope, but also other key regional partnerships in advanced economies.

This includes the European Union and the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA, formerly known as NAFTA). How does the trio stack up?

 Nominal GDP, 2020Population, 2020
EU$15.2 trillion445 million
USMCA$23.7 trillion496 million
RCEP$26.1 trillion2.27 billion
World$84.5 trillion7.64 billion

With the combined might of its 15 signatories, the RCEP accounts for approximately 30% of global GDP and population. Interestingly, the total population covered within the RCEP is near or over five times that of the other trade blocs.

Another regional agreement not covered here is the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which is now the largest in terms of participating countries (55 in total), but in the other metrics, the RCEP still emerges superior.

Implications of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

The potential effects of the RCEP are widespread. Among others, the agreement will establish rules for the region around:

  • Investment
  • Competition
  • E-commerce
  • Intellectual property
  • Telecommunications

However, there are some key exclusions that have raised critics’ eyebrows. These are:

  • Labor union provisions
  • Environmental protection
  • Government subsidies

The RCEP could also help China gain even more ground in its economic race against the U.S. towards becoming a global superpower.

Last, but most importantly, Brookings estimates that the potential gains from the RCEP are in the high billions: $209 billion could be added annually to world incomes, and $500 billion may be added to world trade by 2030.

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