A Look at China’s Economy through the Performance of Beijing Capital International Airport

5 min readJan 9, 2024

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The year 2023 marked the first year in China after the relaxation of pandemic control measures. However, the eagerly anticipated robust rebound and recovery did not materialize immediately. Economic recovery faced delays, businesses struggled to operate, and there were disruptions in personnel mobility, particularly in international interactions. Through the lens of passenger flows at airports across China, the palpable impact of pandemic control measures coupled with the economic downturn continued throughout 2023.

Taking Beijing Capital International Airport as an example, its performance in 2023 was notably subdued. Researchers at ANBOUND, on multiple business trips through the airport in 2023, consistently observed the condition at the Capital Airport. Despite its capacity expansion to handle an annual throughput of 100 million passengers after the renovation, the airport appeared eerily empty on each visit. The bustling crowds of the past were conspicuously absent. Due to a reduction in passengers, security checks for departing flights were virtually queue-free, with passengers going through checks promptly upon arrival. Many airport eateries and duty-free shops wore a deserted look, with several establishments closing down, their surroundings cordoned off by barriers.

Figure: Passenger Throughput at Beijing Capital International Airport in Recent Years (Number of People)

Sources: Civil Aviation Administration of China, Flight Master. Chart plotted by ANBOUND.

According to the report, the estimated passenger transport volume for China’s civil aviation in 2023 is expected to reach 620 million, a year-on-year increase of 145.9% compared to 2022, and an overall recovery to 93.8% of the 2019 levels. Looking at the types of routes, domestic routes are expected to achieve a passenger transport volume of 580 million, a 1.5% increase compared to 2019, while international/regional routes are expected to achieve a passenger transport volume of 36 million, a 58.3% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 41.7%). In 2023, the passenger throughput at Beijing Capital Airport is 529.67 million, a 47% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 53%). Including Daxing Airport, with a passenger flow of 394.72 million in 2023, the combined passenger flow of the two major airports in Beijing is still less than the passenger flow at the previous Capital Airport. In 2023, the total passenger flow of the two Beijing airports is 924.39 million, lower than the 2016 figure of 943.93 million and the 2017 figure of 957.86 million (if the total passenger throughput of the two Beijing airports is calculated, the recovery rate in 2023 is approximately 92.4%).

In terms of aviation passenger flow in other first-tier cities in 2023, Guangzhou Baiyun Airport has the highest passenger flow at 631.86 million, a 13.9% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 86.1%). Shanghai Pudong Airport had a passenger flow of 546.28 million, a 28.3% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 71.7%). Meanwhile, Shanghai Hongqiao Airport had a passenger flow of 424.55 million in 2023, a 7% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 93%). Shenzhen Bao’an Airport saw a passenger flow of 527.63 million in 2023, a mere 0.3% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 99.7%).

In other second and third-tier provincial capitals, the situation is similar. In 2023, the aviation passenger throughput and changes compared to 2019 for various cities are as follows: Chongqing Jiangbei Airport had 446.69 million passengers, a 0.3% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 99.7%); Kunming Changshui Airport had 419.66 million passengers, a 12.7% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 87.3%); Xi’an Xianyang Airport had 413.65 million passengers, a 12.4% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 87.3%); Hangzhou Xiaoshan Airport had 411.93 million passengers, a 2.7% increase compared to 2019, fully recovered; Nanjing Lukou Airport had 27.36 million passengers, a 10.5% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 89.5%); Wuhan Tianhe Airport had 258.37 million passengers, a 4.8% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 95.2%); Zhengzhou Xinzheng Airport had 253.66 million passengers, a 12.9% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 87.1%); Chengdu Shuangliu Airport had 301.38 million passengers, a 46.0% decrease compared to 2019 (recovery rate of 54%), but including the passenger throughput of Tianfu Airport in 2023, the total passenger throughput of Chengdu is 749.33 million.

Looking at the passenger throughput data from major airports in 2023, except for a few cities, most domestic cities in China have not yet recovered to the levels of 2019. The slow recovery of airport passenger traffic can be attributed to various factors, such as the post-pandemic scar effects, the diversion effect of high-speed rail traffic, the contraction of consumer and travel demand under an economic downturn, and the reduction of business passenger flow due to poor corporate operations. In a few cities such as Beijing and Chengdu, the number of passengers diverted to newly built airports is also an important factor.

Furthermore, it should not be overlooked that in 2023, the international passenger flow in various cities in China significantly decreased compared to before the pandemic. The sharp decline in international passenger flow is related to three factors: first, under the pandemic, China’s strict control has isolated international passenger flow; second, the large-scale withdrawal of foreign capital has reduced business passenger flow in China; third, geopolitical frictions have become a hindering factor as well. Identifying these major reasons and issues is crucial for the formulation of China’s policies in the future. In the next steps of policy adjustment, considerations should focus on addressing these relevant issues.

Final analysis conclusion:

Airport passenger traffic is an important window for observing the recovery of the Chinese economy. Looking at the passenger throughput data from major airports in the country in 2023, it is evident that the recovery of the Chinese economy is not easy and cannot be expected to happen overnight. Particularly noteworthy is the significant impact of strict pandemic prevention and control measures implemented in the past few years, as well as the escalating international geopolitical frictions in recent years, which have dealt a significant blow to international travelers coming to China. In the future, when adjusting relevant policies domestically, careful attention needs to be paid by the Chinese authorities to the openness to international travelers.




ANBOUND is a multinational independent think tank, specializing in public policy research, incl. economy, urban and industry, geopolitical issues. Est. 1993.