WASHINGTON – After three years of largely self-imposed isolation because of Covid‑19, China is finally reopening. But US airlines are not lining up to reinstate the once-abundant services between the world’s two largest economies.
In pre-pandemic 2019, direct flights between the United States and China by carriers from both countries averaged 340 per week. Today there are a maximum of just two dozen weekly.
The biggest three US airlines – American, Delta and United – will keep flying at reduced pandemic-era levels, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified speaking about private discussions.
But it is not because of weak demand.
Rather, it is a dispute over Russian airspace restrictions that apply to about three dozen countries, including the US, but not to China.
The quiet stand-off comes against the backdrop of an overall deterioration in relations between Beijing and Washington, clouding prospects for a quick diplomatic resolution.
Meanwhile, Japan’s ANA, British Airways and Emirates Airlines are among carriers that have restarted, or announced plans to resume, daily flights to Chinese cities including Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.
Korean Air’s China service has reached pre-pandemic levels, growing from 13 weekly flights to 84 in April, with plans to expand to 99 in May, the airline said.
Air France is asking the French government to limit Chinese airlines’ access to the country, saying they enjoy an unfair advantage because they can fly over Russian airspace.
But it is also asking to more than double its own China-bound flights, to 14 a week.
American airlines are not interested in dialling up from the 12 flights a week currently connecting the two countries – at least not until Chinese carriers stop using Arctic routes over Russia to reach the US.
That provides them an advantage in lower fuel costs and fares, as well as shorter flight times.
Mr Andrew Nocella, chief commercial officer of United Airlines, told analysts on an April 19 conference call that the carrier is “stuck” at four flights a week to China.
“We are preparing to fly more than that,” he said. “Hopefully later this year we will be flying more to China, and we have the aircraft to do so if the conditions allow us to do so.”