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Flyer Beware? Here’s How China’s First-Ever “Unlimited Flight Pass” Deal is Working Out

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As airline companies worldwide struggle amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese carrier China Eastern introduced its “Weekend Flight Pass” — a promotional voucher that allows for unlimited domestic travel on weekends, the first of its kind in China — during the recent 618 Shopping Festival.

The move garnered plenty of headlines and hype, but how is the deal working out for those who bought one? The Dragon Boat Festival public holiday late last week offered some insight.

As of the end of the holiday period, 100,000 trips had been booked on these passes — including 65,000 just over the holiday weekend, according to Beijing Youth Daily. The top routes from China Eastern’s base in Shanghai for the weekend were to Shenzhen, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Xi’an, Changsha, and Xiamen. 

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The promotion turned out to be very popular. On the four Saturday flights from Shanghai Hongqiao Airport to Chengdu — all of them near-full flights — for example, 90% of passengers were traveling on flight passes. Among all passengers flying China Eastern and its subsidiary Shanghai Airlines between Shanghai and Chengdu over the weekend, 59% were on flight passes. 

The flight pass, which costs 3,322RMB (469USD), seems like a bargain — it covers unlimited travel within China on weekends until the end of the year. If one takes five roundtrips on weekends, each flight will cost less than 400RMB (56USD).

But this is also a time when the average domestic airfare is cheaper than usual: trips may cost similarly low amounts without the voucher, and many travelers now prefer traveling by high-speed train due to their flexibility and convenience. 

Bright Huang, who lives in Shanghai, bought the flight pass the minute he saw it because his schedule is flexible. “I’m planning two long-hauls to Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as weekend trips to Qingdao, Xiamen, and Dalian,” he tells RADII.



Initially, Huang thought it was a limited-time offer, but it was not. Nevertheless, he points out that the flight pass doesn’t entitle holders to a seat. “I heard many routes are so popular that it would be difficult to get a ticket,” he says. 

As travel demands halted earlier this year, Chinese airlines resorted to narrow-body aircrafts and curtailed flights to maintain margins. Nevertheless, China Eastern’s load factor in May fell to 64.61%, a year-over-year decrease by 17.43%, according to its most recent report. The travel pass promotion is most likely an effort to fully utilize the company’s idle capacity and fill the empty seats. 

China Express Airlines, a regional carrier based out of Chongqing, has followed China Eastern, launching an unlimited flight pass for 2,999RMB (424USD) — though it is not limited to weekends.

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While China’s aviation industry is now experiencing a rebound due to lifted travel restrictions, there are challenges ahead. First, regional outbreaks — such as the one in Beijing — continue to discourage passengers from non-essential travel on weekends and holidays. A number of schools and companies have asked students and employees not to leave their home cities without permission due to the possibility of a potential quarantine.

Second, the possibility of international travel remains dim in the near future. The Chinese civil aviation authority’s “Five One” policy continues to limit the number of international routes each carrier may operate each week, in an effort to prevent imported cases — this means many B787s and A380s will likely stay grounded until at least the end of the year. 

Tianyu Fang
Tianyu M. Fang is a writer and journalist covering Chinese culture, politics, and technology. You can find him on Twitter: @tianyuf.