United Airlines may resume limited China flights, the first suspended due to the coronavirus

Apr 6, 2020

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United Airlines is considering resuming limited passenger service to Shanghai as China begins to recover from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Star Alliance carrier is “looking at the possibility” of resuming once-weekly service to Shanghai Pudong (PVG), United senior vice president of flight operations Bryan Quigley told pilots in a memo on April 4 viewed by TPG. The airline suspended all service to Shanghai in early February as the COVID-19 outbreak spread.

United would likely reconnect its Pacific gateway in San Francisco (SFO) with Shanghai if it resumes service, TPG understands.

Get Coronavirus travel updates. Stay on top of industry impacts, flight cancellations, and more.

Forbes first reported that the airline was evaluating resuming passenger flights to China.

United’s possible return to China is a sign that there is hope for the ravaged airline industry on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis. The load factor, or percent of seats filled, on flights in China rose above 60% at the end of March after loads fell as low as 40% the month before, according to International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“China is now returning to work and relaxing domestic travel restrictions,” IATA chief economist Brian Pearce wrote on March 27. “We’ve seen a slow resumption of domestic air services… [and] passenger confidence is returning too, albeit slowly.”

Related: It may be years until passenger demand returns to 2019 levels for US airlines

The Chinese government closely controls air service and has put strict limits on international flights. Chinese carriers are limited to one route with just one weekly flight per country, while foreign airlines are limited to just one weekly flight.

Air China and China Southern Airlines continue to fly to Los Angeles (LAX), and China Eastern Airlines to New York John F. Kennedy (JFK).

Prior to the coronavirus, United was the largest U.S. carrier to China. The airline offered up to 10 daily flights to the country, including one to Chengdu (CTU), four to Beijing Capital (PEK) and five to Shanghai.

Whether the carrier resumes all of its flights to China is an open question. The industry remains in triage slashing flights from their schedules, most recently to the New York area, with demand for air travel near zero. Airlines are likely to reevaluate their entire route maps when they emerge from the crisis with expectation that they will cut flights and some superfluous flying as they retrench to their cores.

Related: How will airlines rebuild their route maps after the coronavirus?

For example, United may decide it does not need to serve Shanghai from Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Los Angeles, Newark (EWR) and San Francisco with the latter route flown twice daily.

Wall Street analysts have forecast that U.S. passengers numbers will be at least 20% below 2019 levels next year.

United is flying just six long-haul international routes in April. The airline is connecting Frankfurt (FRA), London Heathrow (LHR) São Paulo (GRU), Sydney (SYD), Tel Aviv (TLV) and Tokyo Narita (NRT) to its Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH), Newark and San Francisco hubs.

Related: United extends elite status for all Premier members and more

Featured image courtesy of United Airlines.

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