China-US aviation spat ratchets down as Washington OKs more flights

Jun 16, 2020

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The back-and-forth aviation battle between the United States and China appears to be letting up.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced a new transpacific aviation policy late Monday that will peg the maximum number of flights to the U.S. by Chinese airlines to the number of flights Beijing is allowing U.S. carriers to operate to China.

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“As the Chinese government allows more flights by U.S. carriers, we will reciprocate,” the DOT said in announcing the policy.

It’s the latest development in an ongoing war of words over air service between the two countries that only now seems to be easing.

The most dramatic episode came earlier this month when Washington said it would bar Chinese carriers from serving the U.S. entirely, a move that came after the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) used a technicality in its COVID-19 flight policy to effectively bar U.S. airlines from restoring service to China.

Review: Air China’s 747-8 in first class from Beijing to New York.

The CAAC announced an easing of its rules the very next day, saying U.S. airlines would be able to resume limited service between the two countries with a schedule of one round-trip flight per week for approved carriers. At the time, only Delta and United had announced plans to resume China service — meaning that the Chinese policy would have allowed a total of two U.S.-China round-trips a week on U.S. carriers.

The DOT, however, said that China’s new policy was still too restrictive and again updated its permissions for Chinese carriers, effectively reducing their transpacific schedules to a cumulative total of two weekly flights, matching what China was allowing U.S. carriers in its latest update.

That policy was set to take effect Tuesday. But the DOT’s Monday announcement confirmed the CAAC’s revised its policy that now will allow U.S. airlines to operate two round-trip flights per week, instead of one.

So far, with only Delta and United having announced plans to restore service to China, that means there could be four round-trip flights by U.S. airlines to China. Likely not coincidentally, that matches what’s currently being flown by China-based carriers, with four airlines each providing one weekly round-trip flight to the U.S.

Related: United and American may ban passengers who don’t wear masks.

While the DOT said it applauds the relaxing of restrictions, its position is that service should be completely restored to pre-coronavirus levels. “The Department will continue to press for the full restoration of passenger air travel between the United States and China,” it said in a statement.

Delta, which had hoped to resume its China service earlier this month, now said it hoped to do so next week. The carrier told Reuters that it would fly two flights from Seattle to Shanghai next week, with each stopping in Seoul en route. In July, Delta said it would continue its schedule of two weekly flights, though one would originate in Seattle and the other in Detroit. Both of those flights also are scheduled to operate with a stop in Seoul. It was unclear when United might restart service following the latest DOT-CAAC updates.

For now, however, there is a limited pool of people who would even be allowed to take the U.S.-China nonstops. Foreign nationals remain prohibited from entering China, so the new flights will only be open to Chinese citizens.

Guide: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus travel restrictions

Featured photo by FG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images.

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