CLAIM: There was no flight movement over China as more than 9,000 flights were canceled across the country in a single day last week.
THE FACTS: While flight tracking estimates show that thousands of flights were canceled on several days last week, this remains consistent with the high cancellation rates the country has experienced amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and multiple experts told the AP that last week’s air patterns weren't unusual.
As baseless claims of a military coup in China spread online recently, social media users asserted that air traffic data showing more than 9,000 flights canceled across the country on a single day was proof that planes were being grounded amid turmoil in the country. “Absolutely no flight movement over China,” wrote one Twitter user on Sept. 24 while posting an image of the global flight tracking service FlightRadar24 that showed a handful of planes crossing the country. Others claimed that about 9,500 flights were canceled across China on Sept. 21, accounting for nearly 60% of flights that day.
But experts say these numbers, as well as some images from flight tracking services, are being presented out of context. Ian Petchenik, director of communications for FlightRadar24, said the images appearing to capture the service’s dashboard over the weekend were likely taken during overnight hours of low flight traffic in China. He added that they also may reflect the fact that FlightRadar24’s display can only show so many flights on screen at a time, meaning if a user zooms out far enough, the number of flights in an area will seemingly disappear. Further, China’s population is not evenly distributed across the country. Because flight density varies greatly depending on the region, some areas are left looking sparse while other areas are more heavily trafficked. “If you’re not understanding what you’re looking at or you’re purposefully misrepresenting what you’re seeing, that becomes an unfortunate byproduct,” Petchenik said.
FlightRadar24 data shows that just over 6,000 out of nearly 15,000 flights were canceled on Sept. 21, which Petchenik said falls in line with the high level of daily cancellations that China has recorded for more than two years. While airlines in the U.S., Europe and Australia, among others, reduced the number of scheduled flights in their flight programs amid the pandemic, many Chinese airlines opted not to remove any scheduled flights, instead canceling a large number of flights on a daily basis, Petchenik told the AP. “In no way is this surprising, concerning, suspenseful or anything,” he said. FlightRadar24 data also shows that the three Wednesdays preceding Sept. 21 all also logged more than 5,000 canceled flights.
FlightAware, another major flight tracking data company, confirmed to the AP in a statement that its data listed more than 8,000 scheduled flights across China on Sept. 21, nearly 2,000 of which were canceled. Spokesperson Kathleen Bangs confirmed that the cancellations reflected normal air traffic patterns in China. “It’s not uncommon, in fact, it’s pretty much business as usual that we see very high cancellations out of China out of a number of major airports every day,” Bangs added. Cirium, an aviation analytics firm, also told the AP in a statement that Cirium found that the rate of flight cancellations in China on Sept. 21 was “very similar to other recent days.”
Social media users spread the false claims of a military coup weeks before China's ruling Communist Party is set to hold a key congress at which leader Xi Jinping is expected to be granted a third five-year term. But Xi reappeared on state television Tuesday after a several-day absence from public view. He was shown visiting a display at the Beijing Exhibition Hall, his first appearance since he returned from a regional summit in Uzbekistan last weekend. Under Chinese pandemic regulations, he would need to stay in quarantine for a week after returning.
— Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in New York contributed this report.