US backs off ban of Chinese airlines, but limits them to just 2 total flights per week

Jun 5, 2020

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Washington and Beijing’s aviation tit-for-tat continues.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Friday that Chinese carriers will have to immediately scale back their schedule of U.S. flights, with Chinese airlines now only permitted to operate a combined total of two weekly round-trip services.

That represents a 50% reduction in service from the current schedule of Chinese airlines serving the U.S. — Air China, China Eastern, China Southern and Xiamen each operate one weekly round-trip. At least two of those carriers will have to suspend U.S. flights based on the new policy. Still, the limit proposed by the DOT backs off a total ban that the agency announced earlier this week that would have begun June 16.

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The DOT’s order is just the latest move as both governments try to assert greater control — and push for more favorable terms — on service across the Pacific.

Throughout the week, the governments have been engaged in a back-and-forth of official policy documents.

First, on Wednesday, the U.S. rolled out its plans to completely bar Chinese carriers from serving American airports. The DOT’s move came after the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) refused to allow U.S. airlines to resume their services to China. The CAAC’s decision was based on a scheduling technicality. Under that policy, foreign carriers could have flown to China if they were serving the country during the week of March 12. But all U.S. airlines had already suspended those flights in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as had many other foreign carriers that had been flying to China.

Related: How far can airborne COVID germs really spread on a plane?

On Thursday, the CAAC reversed course after the U.S. DOT announced its planned ban on Chinese carriers. The CAAC decided to allow foreign airlines to begin operating one weekly flight to one city in China, regardless of previous schedules, and included provisions for expanding that service so long as arriving passengers did not test positive for coronavirus.

The latest came in the DOT’s Friday response, which allowed the two weekly flights but also called China’s current policy anti-competitive. Delta and United, which were both planning to restore service to China this month, wanted to do so with more robust schedules. In its statement, the DOT said China’s limited acceptance of flights from foreign carriers favored Chinese airlines by design.

“We continue to find that the Government of China has, over the objections of the U.S. Government, impaired the operating rights of U.S. carriers and denied U.S. air carriers the fair and equal opportunity to exercise their operating rights,” the statement said. “The CAAC will permit Chinese carriers, in the aggregate, to operate as many as four weekly passenger flights to the United States.”

Related: Denied boarding after a temperature check? Here are your rights.

The DOT’s new order is meant to put U.S. and Chinese carriers on equal footing for transpacific service. The aggregate two weekly round-trip flights Chinese carriers are now permitted, “would be equivalent to that permitted by Chinese aviation authorities for U.S. carriers,” the DOT said.

However, China’s order does not specifically bar other U.S. airlines, like American, from resuming some scheduled flights, so DOT’s new policy seems to be designed to limit Chinese carriers only to what their U.S. counterparts currently plan to fly.

For now, because China’s borders are closed to non-citizens, the policy only affects travel for Chinese nationals.

Related: 3 ways the TSA experience will be different next time you fly.

The department added it will revisit this policy if China adopts a more permissive schedule for U.S. carriers, so the saga seems likely to progress through at least a few more rounds.

Featured photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images.

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