China's High-Speed Rail Is So Popular, It's Hurting the Domestic Airline Industry

Profits are falling, fast.

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Reuters

China Southern Airlines is the latest Chinese airline to post miserable year-end 2013 results. Net profit dropped 24 percent to 1.99 billion yuan ($321 million), and operating profit fell 70 percent. China Southern Airlines joins Air China, where net profit dropped 32 percent in 2013, and China Eastern Airlines, where it fell by 25 percent.

High oil prices, as well as increased competition from low-cost carriers and each other, have taken a toll. But, as each airline has recently acknowledged, so has China's massive and growing high-speed rail system.

As Quartz reported last August, the costly and sometimes under-used rail network was shaping up to be a vital part of China’s growth strategy. It doesn't have the hurdles of the airline industry: Airlines in China struggle to get clearances from the military to expand flight paths, and China’s major airports have earned the title of the most-delayed in the world, where passengers sometimes riot to protest long waits and miserable customer service.

The high-speed rail system, on the other hand, has quickly grown to over 6,000 miles in five years, and will expand to 11,800 miles by 2015. It is already transporting some 2 million passengers a day on trains that are rarely delayed, and which go nearly 200 miles an hour, twice as many passengers as domestic airlines.

If there were no rail network, these passengers wouldn't all necessarily have taken flights instead, of course. Some might not have traveled at all, or gone by car, bus or slow train. Still, to see how this has hit the airlines, take a look at China Southern’s domestic passenger activity, which peaked in 2011, and on most months hasn’t hit the same highs since, according to the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation:

In 2013, China Southern’s revenues from domestic operations dropped 5.5 percent to 81.3 billion yuan. At Air China, revenues from domestic flights likewise fell over 5 percent in 2013, though the number of passengers increased by 7.3 percent. "The rapid development of high-speed railway and the evolution of low-cost carriers on the mainland will further intensify competition on domestic routes," the company said when it announced results March 25.

China Eastern’s chief executive complained about the subsidies the railways get in an interview last year, saying "In China, the government has also invested heavily in high-speed rail—far more than in the airlines in fact—so it’s not a case of nationalized carriers being better off, because they also have many challenges to face."
 
It's a sticky situation: while all of China’s big three airlines are publicly traded, the Chinese government continues to hold controlling stakes in the companies. That means the cannibalization of domestic airline passengers by the railways is a case of the government eating its own profits.


This article originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Heather Timmons is an Asia correspondent for Quartz.