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Air China planes parked at the Beijing airport (GREG BAKER)
Air China planes parked at the Beijing airport (GREG BAKER)

Asian air traffic passes N. America's Add to ...

The rise of Asia on the world economic stage is now being reflected on airport runways, as North America loses its traditional bragging rights to having the best-travelled population on the planet.

Demand for flights within Asia has outstripped the North American air sector for the first time, led by growth in China, and signs point to further expansion of the Asian aviation market.

There were 647 million air travellers in the intra-Asia market last year, surpassing the 638 million passengers within North America, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said Monday.

"While we see dynamism and diversity within the region, the aspect of Asia-Pacific that excites me most is its potential," IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani said in a statement at the start of the Singapore Air Show.

"It is only the very beginning of the potential for this region. In the United States, there are three aircraft seats per year for each of the 300 million people who live there. China's population of 1.3 billion is served by only 0.3 seats per person and India's 1.1 billion population has only 0.1 seats available per person," Mr. Bisignani said.

IATA is forecasting that 2010 will still be a rough year financially for global carriers, but Asian airlines are positioned to slash their losses faster than elsewhere. Asian carriers could see their losses decline to $700-million (U.S.) this year from a $3.4-billion loss in 2009, said the association, which represents about 230 international airlines.

Mr. Bisignani cautioned that Asian carriers will fail to reach their full potential unless restrictive aviation rules are relaxed to allow greater access in the region to more airlines.

He noted that there has been a power shift within Asia's airline industry over the past decade, with China rapidly rising and Japan barely registering growth. "Japan has stagnated with a domestic market of 2.6 million seats per week, 1.3 million weekly international seats and a fleet of 540 aircraft. China has seen weekly domestic seats expand to 5.7 million, weekly international seats grow to 1.4 million and the fleet more than double to 1,400 aircraft," he said.

One of Asia's largest airlines, Japan Airlines Corp., filed for bankruptcy protection in Tokyo District Court two weeks ago.

Industry analysts say inbound travel to Canada from China is expected to eventually overtake the number of visitors from Japan.

The gap between China and Japan has been narrowing, said Robert Kokonis, president of airline consulting firm AirTrav Inc. In the January-September period of 2008, there were 219,425 visitors from Japan entering Canada, compared with 126,310 people from China, or a difference of 93,115, according to Statistics Canada. But in the first nine months of 2009, the gap was reduced to 23,981 travellers as inbound traffic from Japan tumbled 31 per cent while the number of visitors from China grew 1 per cent, despite the global recession.

The influx of Chinese trips is forecast to stay strong in 2010 because China granted approved destination status (ADS) to Canada in December. The move allows travel agents in China to market Canada and makes it easier for residents from China to visit Canada.

"With ADS in place and with rising purchasing power amongst China's burgeoning middle class, inbound travel from China and in particular from the Chinese leisure segment, should see significant increases over the coming years," Mr. Kokonis said.

Carriers that will benefit include Air Canada and China Southern Airlines, while Guangzhou in southern China is expected to emerge as a new point for non-stop service, he said. In the past, "inbound travel from China to Canada has been dominated by business, government and academic missions, with only a small amount of general tourism."

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