Very few U.S.-China flights are back despite the end of Covid

Travel

Flights of Air China are parked on the tarmac of Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, China, March 28, 2016.
Kim Kyung Hoon | Reuters

BEIJING — Fewer than 6% of U.S. flights to and from mainland China that existed in 2019 have resumed, according to a Nomura report.

In contrast, flights between mainland China and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Italy are nearly back to pre-pandemic frequency or more, the report showed, citing data as of May 22 from Variflight.

“We think geopolitical factors in China’s outbound tourism revival … are clearly at play here,” Nomura’s Chief China Economist Ting Lu and a team said in the report Monday.

In March, China brokered the restoration of diplomatic ties between Middle East rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Beijing has refused to condemn Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, while calling for peace talks.

Tensions between the U.S. and China have meanwhile simmered. China’s ambassador to the U.S. assumed office last week after a gap of about six months with no one in the position.

This past weekend, an Air China flight between Beijing and New York marked the first direct passenger on the route by a Chinese carrier in months. It was one of the four new weekly flights between the two countries by Chinese airlines that the U.S. Department of Transportation approved in May.

Previously, the only regular direct flights by Chinese carriers between mainland China and New York since the pandemic were from Shanghai and Guangzhou. The cross-border non-stop flights also cover Los Angeles.

On the other hand, reports say U.S.-based airlines have chosen not to resume many flights between the U.S. and China. That’s because restrictions on flying over Russian airspace give Chinese carriers an advantage — an added cost of $2 billion a year for the three major U.S.-based airlines.

Delta, United and American Airlines did not respond to a request for comment.

In early January, Beijing relaxed border controls after nearly three years and scrapped inbound quarantine requirements, while allowing more people to get visas for travel in and out of the mainland.

In March, Delta announced it resumed direct flights between the U.S. and China — from Shanghai to Seattle and Detroit.

Overall, mainland China’s international flights remains below 40% of 2019 levels, the Nomura report said.

The analysts expect that level to pick up to 70% by the end of the year as international flights recover around the summer holiday season.

More than 100 million passengers went through Beijing Capital International Airport in 2019, making it the second-busiest airport in the world, according to Airports Council International. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the U.S. ranked first.

No Chinese airport made the rankings for 2022. The council said in April that China is the second largest aviation market after the U.S. and its recovery is “expected to bring an overall gain, both domestically and for international travel.”

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