DOT decision marks incremental rise in flights between US and China Post-Covid.

Key Points:

  • The US Department of Transportation permits Chinese airlines to up their weekly round-trip flights to the USA from 12 to 18, with a further increase to 24 by the end of October.

  • Flights between the two nations had been restricted since June 2020, leading to limited air travel due to Chinese government policies and the pandemic.

  • United Airlines announces plans to enhance its flight schedule to China, suggesting potential reciprocity from the Chinese government for US carriers.

WASHINGTON D.C. — On 11 August, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) unveiled a decision, effective from 1 September, to allow Chinese airlines to ramp up their weekly round-trip flights to the USA. The increase will move from the current 12 flights to 18, with an additional surge to 24 slated for 29 October. The decision encompasses major Chinese carriers including Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, and Hainan Airlines.

The DOT emphasized its commitment to maintaining a competitive balance between the nations, stating, “Our objective is fostering a scenario where carriers from both countries can fully exercise their bilateral rights, ensuring a fair and equal opportunity for US and Chinese air carriers.”

Historically, the number of flights between the US and China took a downturn in June 2020. The DOT highlighted that the Chinese government had restricted US carriers’ operational rights, which was counter to the US-China Civil Air Transport Agreement. Nevertheless, with the easing of travel constraints brought about by the pandemic, flight frequency between the two countries witnessed an uptick, reaching 12 weekly round trips for carriers of each country this past May.

In a swift response to the DOT's decision, Chicago-based United Airlines declared an augmentation in its flight schedule to China. This move has sparked speculation regarding the Chinese government’s reciprocal actions in favor of US carriers. United's announcement on 11 August reads, "These enhancements to United’s Asia-Pacific schedule are enabled by agreement between the governments of the US and China to increase flights between the two countries."

Starting in November, United intends to reestablish daily flights from its West Coast hub in San Francisco to Beijing and also boost its flight frequency to Shanghai starting 1 October. Expressing gratitude for the bilateral step in air services, Patrick Quayle, United's senior VP of global network planning and alliances, mentioned the enhancements reflect the current market demand.

However, United flagged that reaching China from its East Coast hubs remains challenging due to overflight restrictions in Russian airspace.

While United was vocal about its intentions, other major airlines like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, known for their extensive weekly flights to China pre-pandemic, have yet to comment on the DOT's decision.