Korean airlines started suspending their routes to China on Tuesday amid escalating tensions between Korea and China.
Korean Air, the largest flag carrier in Korea, announced it will suspend its daily flights between Gimpo and Beijing from August until Oct. 28. Flights between Incheon and Xiamen will also be suspended from August to October.
Similarly, Asiana Airlines, the second-largest carrier, will suspend its daily Gimpo-Beijing route starting from July 6.
The airline suspended the Incheon-Xi’an route on Tuesday, and the Incheon-Shenzhen route will be suspended starting on July 8.
According to the aviation information portal system, the number of passengers flying from Korea to China from April to May totaled 402,410.
The figure represents a 73.7 percent drop compared to the corresponding period in 2019, before the Covid-19 outbreak.
China had implemented temporary border closures as a precautionary measure during the pandemic but resumed visa issuance, including tourist visas, from March 15.
Nevertheless, Korea remains excluded from China’s list of allowed destinations for group tours.
Korea-China tensions flared once again when the Chinese Ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming said, “Those who now bet on China’s defeat will surely regret it later,” sparking a major controversy in Korea.
“Airlines require profitability to operate flights, and based on the consideration of route demand, we made the decision to suspend them,” an airline official told the Korea JoongAng Daily on condition of anonymity.
China routes were regarded as an important source of profit for the airlines before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Asiana Airlines, for example, operated 22 routes to China and conducted 191 flights per week as of early 2019, making them the domestic airline with the largest number of China routes.
Although Korean Air and Asiana Airlines have not publicly shared their route occupancy rates, it is believed that the figures for the suspended Chinese routes were below 70 percent, which is considered the threshold for achieving profitability.
“Despite the recent resumption of group and individual visa issuance of Koreans to China, the current travel situation remains relatively restricted compared to the pre-Covid period,” an airline official said on condition of anonymity.
The official, however, added, “The recent decision cannot be solely attributed to the remark made by the Chinese Ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming but was made in consideration of the overall situation.”
The airline industry believes the revival of China routes largely depends on the resumption of group tourists. Unlike Japan, where individual travelers make up a significant portion, China has a larger share of group tourists.
On the other hand, a ConsumerInsight survey showed Koreans’ interest in traveling to China in the first quarter of 2023 has dropped to about one-third of the pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, low-cost airlines such as Jeju Air and Air Busan, which have increased the number of flights to China, plan to maintain their current routes to the country.
“The existing China routes currently in operation primarily cater to business travelers and expatriates rather than tourists. Thus we plan to maintain the current level of operation,” a Jeju Air spokesperson said.
BY SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]