In 2018, 380 million people travelled by train within the Chinese mainland during Chinese New Year. Pictures of the extraordinary crowds thronging the ticketing halls and platforms have become a familiar feature of news feeds and websites at this time of year.
But more and more CNY travellers within the Chinese mainland and in the thousands of Chinese communities around the world are choosing another means of transport: flying.
Many of the estimated 44 million Chinese people living beyond China’s borders will travel to see family for the festival, which officially falls between 12-15 February in 2021, though most celebrations – and travel plans – tend to last for a few weeks. Within China, 67 million people travelled by air during the festive period in 2018.
There’s a similar pattern to Christmas and New Year travel in the West: family members travel to be together. But travel industry experts have spotted that there’s another kind of traveller, often younger and more affluent, who takes the opportunity to fly overseas. In 2018, 6.5 million people travelled abroad from China for the holidays.
CNY is one of the reasons China is the fastest-growing aviation market in the world. It is currently second only to the US, but will become the largest player in terms of passenger numbers in the next 10 years, according to industry trade association IATA.
It’s not only Cathay Pacific’s flight and operations teams that work at full throttle during and running up to chunyun, or the ‘spring migration’, which takes place for six weeks around Chinese New Year. Increasingly, customers are taking advantage of the deals the airline puts together with partners in the travel industry – especially hotels.
‘It’s a busy time for people who opt to travel overseas,’ says Cindy Lee, Managing Director Cathay Pacific Holidays. ‘Chinese New Year is an important time for our customers, whether they are visiting family or taking the opportunity to travel abroad. ‘At Cathay Pacific Holidays, we see that customers prefer the convenience of a package – our five-star hotel packages are particularly popular.’
A higher-than-usual proportion of travellers also opted for five-star hotels. It’s clearly a time to treat yourself, your partner or your family – especially when the package might include an upgrade to a suite or special offers on spas or dining.
Cathay Pacific’s overseas offices – or outports as they’re called – see chunyun at its peak of activity.
That requires careful management and planning – and not just in the departures and arrivals halls.
‘Customers travelling at this time are usually taking higher than normal baggage loads,’ says Erik Saywack, Operations Manager at Los Angeles. ‘We plan our aircraft loading to ensure we have enough space for our customers and their baggage during this festive season.’
But for the customer service teams, exceptional times require an exceptional effort.
‘We see a spike in “meet and assist” requests during this period,’ says Stuart Taylor, Airport Operations Manager, Sydney. ‘We also notice more elderly passengers seem to travel during this period as they are visiting friends and relatives.’
Every outport has its individual requirements. In Los Angeles, for example, there’s also an increase in traffic to and from Vietnam.
‘We do our best to roster additional Vietnamese-speaking ground employees to ensure a seamless service delivery,’ says Saywack.
And in the cities with significant Chinese populations, Chinese New Year events have become a draw for people from every background.