Airline Weekly

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Geopolitics Get in Way of Resuming U.S.-China Flights as Demand Surges

Edward Russell
January 6th, 2023 at 10:58 AM EST
Air China, United, and Lufthansa jets at San Francisco airport.

Photo credit: Air China, United, and Lufthansa jets at San Francisco airport. Flickr / Bill Abbott

The Chinese government will lift Covid-era travel restrictions this weekend, on January 8. While international travel demand to the country is expected to surge, airline schedules will take some time to recover, especially amid ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China.

Air China, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hainan Airlines, and United Airlines have all expressed interest — both officially and behind closed doors — in resuming some of their pre-pandemic schedules between the U.S. and China, Airline Weekly understands and U.S. regulatory filings show. However, flight limits imposed on both sides of the Pacific during the crisis remain in place and bar a quick resumption of nonstop air service between the countries.

“The old bilateral is being completely ignored,” one senior airline executive said who was not allowed to speak publicly on the matter.

Prior to the pandemic, U.S. airlines were allowed nearly 23 daily flights to and from China, and Chinese carriers nearly 26 daily passenger flights under a bilateral agreement reached in 2007. The limits were primarily on flights to and from Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai — China’s three largest cities — while flights to so-called zone three destinations in China, like Chengdu and Xi’an, were unlimited.

In 2019, United was the largest airline in the market with up to 10 daily nonstop flights, followed by China Eastern Airlines, Air China, Hainan, and Delta, according to Diio by Cirium schedules.

Nonstop flights between the U.S. and China were among the first to end in the early days of the Covid crisis in 2020. Today, both governments allow the other country’s airlines to operate only several nonstop flights a week — far below the multiple daily flights flown just four years ago.

The number of flights allowed, along with so many other matters, are caught up in the tensions between China and the U.S. Issues include the trade war that began under the Trump administration, and the delays by Chinese authorities allowing Boeing’s 737 Max to return to passenger service after it was grounded in 2019. The latest volley is the U.S.’s decision in late December to require a negative Covid test from all inbound travelers coming from China.

China also requires a negative PCR test for all inbound international travelers regardless of country of origin.

Air China and Hainan have both applied to U.S. authorities to begin ramping up their schedules in the coming weeks. The former is seeking approval from the Department of Transportation to resume daily flights between Beijing and both Los Angeles and New York JFK on January 17, and several weekly flights between the Chinese capital and both San Francisco and Washington, D.C., in March, a regulatory filing on January 4 shows. The latter wants to resume several weekly flights from Beijing to Boston and Seattle, as well as Shanghai to Boston, and Chongqing to New York JFK, in February.

However, sources indicate that the DOT is unlikely to grant these requests until the Chinese regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China, allows U.S. airlines to similarly ramp up their flight schedules.

American, Delta, and United have, for now, published schedules that would see them resume two, four, and up to 10 daily U.S.-China flights, respectively, at the end of March, Diio data show. These schedules are not firm and will change, Airline Weekly understands.

A United spokesperson confirmed that flights between the two countries remain restricted by both governments, and added that the airline is currently allowed only four weekly U.S.-China flights.

Other airlines, not hindered by Sino-American politics, are already adding flights. Cathay Pacific Airways and Etihad Airways have unveiled expanded schedules to China in recent days. Hong Kong-based Cathay “will more than double its flights” to the mainland on January 14 to 61 weekly frequencies — or nearly nine daily flights — with plans to increase service to more than 100 weekly frequencies in February.

However, even with these increases, analysts at both OAG and Raymond James have warned that many international flights to China will take time to resume. OAG, in a January 3 report, said they expect more additions to second quarter schedules than first as “airlines and travelers work through the logistics of restarting” travel.

And Raymond James warned on January 4 that the negative Covid test requirement to enter China, coupled with the country’s existing visa rules, will likely “dampen” the initial leisure travel recovery. Leisure has been a mainstay of the pandemic air travel recovery around the world.

Neither the U.S. DOT nor the Embassy of China in Washington, D.C., responded to requests for comment.


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