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Analysts: China flight cancellations follow normal pattern

September 27, 2022 GMT
Airline crew are greeted by airport personnel dressed in protective gear as the plane arrives at the Beijing Capital International Airport ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Beijing. Air traffic analysts say flight cancellations across China the week of Sept. 19, 2022, were in line with high cancelation rates the country has experienced during the pandemic, despite false claims online that nearly all planes had been grounded. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Airline crew are greeted by airport personnel dressed in protective gear as the plane arrives at the Beijing Capital International Airport ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Beijing. Air traffic analysts say flight cancellations across China the week of Sept. 19, 2022, were in line with high cancelation rates the country has experienced during the pandemic, despite false claims online that nearly all planes had been grounded. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Airline crew are greeted by airport personnel dressed in protective gear as the plane arrives at the Beijing Capital International Airport ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Beijing. Air traffic analysts say flight cancellations across China the week of Sept. 19, 2022, were in line with high cancelation rates the country has experienced during the pandemic, despite false claims online that nearly all planes had been grounded. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Airline crew are greeted by airport personnel dressed in protective gear as the plane arrives at the Beijing Capital International Airport ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Beijing. Air traffic analysts say flight cancellations across China the week of Sept. 19, 2022, were in line with high cancelation rates the country has experienced during the pandemic, despite false claims online that nearly all planes had been grounded. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Airline crew are greeted by airport personnel dressed in protective gear as the plane arrives at the Beijing Capital International Airport ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Beijing. Air traffic analysts say flight cancellations across China the week of Sept. 19, 2022, were in line with high cancelation rates the country has experienced during the pandemic, despite false claims online that nearly all planes had been grounded. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

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.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. While flight tracking estimates show that thousands of flights were canceled last Wednesday, this remains consistent with the high cancellation rates the country has experienced amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to air traffic analysts. Thousands of flights still proceeded as scheduled, and multiple experts told The Associated Press that last week’s air patterns in China were not unusual.

THE FACTS: As baseless claims of a military coup in China spread online over the weekend, social media users asserted that air traffic data showing more than 9,000 flights canceled across the country on a single day last week was proof that planes were being grounded amid turmoil in the country.

“Absolutely no flight movement over China,” wrote one Twitter user on Saturday, 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 last Wednesday, 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 — showing the airspace nearly empty over China — 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 until they focus closer into a specific geographic area.

Further, China’s population is not evenly distributed across the country. Most people live along the southeastern half. 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 of flight traffic displays.

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, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

“There are always a ton of cancellations,” he added. “Yes, there were a ton of flight cancellations on the 21st. But there have been a ton of flight cancellations on the 20th, 19th, 18th, 17th, going back and back and back for two years now. In no way is this surprising, concerning, suspenseful or anything.”

FlightRadar24 data also shows that the three Wednesdays preceding Sept. 21 all also logged more than 5,000 officially 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. The two flight tracking services pull data from different sources and vary in their methodologies.

Still, FlightAware 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 cancellations have been high in China for the past 10 days and beyond. Cirium found that about 48% of flights were cancelled in China on Sept. 21, which the firm said was “very similar to other recent days.”

Both FlightAware and FlightRadar24’s sites showed a crowded airspace with hundreds of flights over China as of Tuesday.

Social media users last week and through the weekend spread unevidenced claims of a military coup in China. The claims come weeks before the country’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. Such congresses are held every five years and usually bring in a new slate of leaders, particularly on the party’s all-powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.