Why Delta’s return to China may include a stop in Seoul

May 27, 2020

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Delta Air Lines hopes to resume flights to China next month with plans to return to Shanghai. But the the airline is covering its bases and does not plan to offer a nonstop flight from the U.S., at least not initially.

In the face of quarantines for passengers arriving in China, all of Delta’s flights to Shanghai Pudong (PVG) will stop at Seoul Incheon (ICN), according to Cirium schedules. That stop, despite appearances, is not to improve connectivity for travelers, but instead to ensure that none of the carrier’s crews have to disembark in China.

Because of the quarantine restrictions, we don’t want any of our crewmembers to stay in China,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian told staff during a virtual town hall on Wednesday viewed by TPG. “By connecting over Seoul we can bring some passengers into China.”

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Atlanta-based Delta will offer up to two daily flights between Seoul and Shanghai beginning June 3, Cirium schedules show. One flight will originate in Detroit (DTW) and the other in Seattle (SEA) with both flown on an Airbus A350-900 fitted with 306 seats, including 32 Delta One business class suites.

  • DL285/284: outbound departs Seoul at 2:10 a.m. (all times local) and arrives Shanghai at 2:55 a.m., return departs Shanghai at 5 a.m. and arrives Seoul at 7:30 a.m.
  • DL287/288: outbound departs Seoul at 4 a.m. and arrives Shanghai at 4:45 a.m., return departs Shanghai at 8 a.m. and arrives Seoul at 10:30 a.m.

Passengers transiting between international flights — even one on the same aircraft — often have to disembark and board again. In addition, Delta cannot sell tickets for travel between just Seoul and Shanghai — in other words, all passengers must begin or end their trips in the U.S.

Related: American, Delta and United plan to fly these long-haul international routes in June

Delta long-haul international routes in June 2020. (Image by Cirium)
Delta’s long-haul international routes, including the tag between Seoul and Shanghai, in June 2020 as of May 27. (Image by Cirium)


The proposed schedule is subject to Chinese government approval. The status of this is unclear due to an ongoing tit-for-tat between China and the U.S. Department of Transportation over resuming flights.

Despite the plans to resume flights, people are not traveling to China in large numbers, Bastian told staff. However, he reiterated that the carrier wants to provide travelers with connectivity to the market that it suspended in February during the early days of the pandemic.

On May 19, United Airlines commercial chief Andrew Nocella said the carrier’s international flying — including its own plans to return to China — was “driven by cargo rather than passenger loads.” United hopes to resume nonstop flights between its Newark (EWR) base and Shanghai Pudong, and its San Francisco (SFO) base and both Beijing Capital (PEK) and Shanghai in June.

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

Delta’s plan to stop in Seoul enroute to Shanghai is a throwback to the Asia network it inherited from Northwest Airlines. Northwest connected many travelers flying between the U.S. and cities in Asia over a hub at Tokyo Narita (NRT) airport. Delta closed the Narita hub in March, shifting to either nonstop flights or a connections with its partner Korean Air over Seoul.

Shanghai is not the only destination where Delta is getting creative. Following the decision to retire its Boeing 777s, it will add a stop in Cape Town (CPT) on the return from Johannesburg (JNB) to Atlanta (ATL) in order to continue service to South Africa with an A350. The routes could begin as soon as October.

Under Delta’s initial plan to resume China flights, it scheduled nonstops to Shanghai from both Detroit and Seattle. Those flights have been replaced with the one-stop services via Seoul.

Related: Delta sending Airbus A350s to Los Angeles, will close Cincinnati pilot base

Featured image by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images.

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