China Eastern just became the largest airline in the world by seat count (for now)

May 6, 2020

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The coronavirus has affected global aviation in a way that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. This week, China Eastern beat out U.S. carrier Southwest for the title of the biggest airline in the world in terms of number of seats available.

The likely temporary title for China Eastern comes after low-cost giant Southwest grounded many of its flights, leading to a reduction of over one million seats, according to OAG analyst John Grant.

Related reading: 9 ways coronavirus could forever change the future of travel

As airlines across the world are slashing route networks, or even stopping flights altogether, this week saw the number of seats drop from 109 million for the same week last year to just 26.6 million this year.

According to Forbes, the Shanghai-based China Eastern is planning to have resumed between 70% and 80% of flights by the end of June. As the airline begins to reintroduce more domestic flights, most of its routes will be operated by narrow-body aircraft.

On major routes with more demand like from Shanghai (SHA) to Beijing (PEK) and Shenzhen (SZX), the airline has already started flying A330-300s and will continue to do so on other busy domestic routes like Shanghai (SHA) to Guangzhou (CAN).

An image showing the number of China Eastern flights in the air at around midday (BST) on Wednesday 6 May (Image courtesy FlightRadar24)

In China, as restrictions are starting to ease and travel ticks up, nearly 900,000 additional seats — often at a lower-than-average price — were added in the past week to tie in with the country’s national labour day holiday on Monday. According to data provider Airsavvi, China is back to around half its usual number of daily domestic flights — over 6,000.

Related reading: A review of China Eastern in business class from Shanghai to New York

It’s been nearly a month since airspace in China started to reopen with the landmark first flight out of Wuhan Tianhe Airport on 8 April. China Eastern flight WU2527 flew a total of 49 passengers to Sanya (SYX), in the country’s southernmost Hainan Province.

Passengers boarding the first flight out of Wuhan as lockdown restrictions i the city started to ease (Photo courtesy China Eastern)
Passengers boarding the first flight out of Wuhan as lockdown restrictions i the city started to ease (Photo courtesy China Eastern)

Related reading: What was I thinking? A review of China Eastern’s new 787 Dreamliner in business class

The airline also announced in a press release that from 3 May, there will be an adapted meal service on all domestic flights that is being called “Edainty”. Breakfast, dinner, light meals and dim sum meals will now all be prepackaged before the flight and either handed out by crew as usual or, depending on the risk level of the flight, be left in the cabin for passengers before they have even boarded the aircraft.

Though the airline is still operating a daily flight from Shanghai (PVG) to London (LHR), it is likely to only be for shipping cargo, as it’s currently not possible to buy tickets for the route.

Featured image courtesy Airbus. 

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