American Airlines, United suspend Hong Kong flights again on coronavirus testing concerns

Jul 9, 2020

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American Airlines and United Airlines have both suspended flights to Hong Kong again on concerns over a new coronavirus testing regime in the Chinese special administrative region.

Fort Worth, Texas-based American has postponed plans to resume its flight between Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and Hong Kong (HKG) until Aug. 5, spokesperson Nichelle Tait told TPG. The carrier was due to reopen the route on Thursday but cancelled that flight.

Chicago-based United has cancelled its departure, flight UA877, to Hong Kong from San Francisco (SFO) and the corresponding return flights for three days — July 8, 9 and 10 — spokesperson Jonathan Guerin told TPG. The airline is “assessing” the new COVID-19 testing protocol before making a decision on future flights.

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Travelers booked on American and United’s cancelled flights to Hong Kong can avail themselves of both carriers’ change policies. Passengers can request a refund or credit, or change their itineraries to other flights.

The service suspensions are emblematic of the operational challenges airlines face flying international routes amid varying border restrictions. Even where there are travelers who want to fly, carriers face a complex series of rules for their crewmembers who need to work flights.

One way these restrictions have changed airline operations is a return of enroute stops that allow crews to avoid an overnight in certain countries. This is the rationale Delta Air Lines cited in its decision to add a stop in Seoul (ICN) to its services between Detroit (DTW) and Seattle (SEA) and Shanghai (PVG). While passengers must remain on the plane, new group of pilots and flight attendants board in Seoul that then operates the round-trip to Shanghai without ever passing through Chinese border control.

Related: A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

Hong Kong began requiring that all arriving travelers, including airline crewmembers, be tested for COVID-19 on July 7. A positive test could result in a mandatory 14-quarantine for crews.

American’s pilots union, the Allied Pilots Association (APA), told pilots on July 8 that it had raised “concerns” over the implications of the new testing rules to airline management. The carrier’s decision to suspend flights followed those discussions with the union.

Tait did not say whether American’s decision to postpone resuming Hong Kong flights by a month was a result of the union’s concerns.

Related: Why Delta’s return to China includes a stop in Seoul

On Thursday, the South China Morning Post reported that four airline crewmembers have tested positive for the virus under the new regime. Three of these cases were among locally-based crewmembers for Hong Kong Air Cargo.

Hong Kong, long a major aviation hub in Asia, has seen U.S. carriers steadily resume flights. United was due to reopen service to Singapore (SIN) via a stop in Hong Kong on July 7, however, the airline’s website shows the first flight was cancelled.

And in September, United planned to relaunch flights between its Chicago O’Hare (ORD) base and Hong Kong after a year-long hiatus. The status of that route is unknown.

Related: United Airlines plans new Hong Kong, Tel Aviv routes from Chicago

“Although the entry protocols changed on short notice, we have successfully dealt with similar situations before,” first officer Roger Philips, a spokesperson for the United chapter at the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), told TPG. “ALPA and United are working together with local authorities and we expect to quickly resume this flying.”

American and United first suspended flights to Hong Kong in February in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. They are the only U.S. carriers serving the airport after Delta Air Lines ended flights to the city in 2018.

Related: American drops 19 long-haul routes; cuts in LAX, adds in Seattle

Featured image by studioEAST/Getty Images.

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