China eases rules for foreign airlines after US retaliated with ban

Jun 5, 2020

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Foreign carriers will be allowed to resume service to China next week.

That’s the latest update from the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC), which eliminated a schedule technicality that prevented most foreign airlines from flying there. The change comes in an ongoing shadow dance between Beijing and Washington over a number of issues, including aviation.

The aviation spat was elevated Wednesday when the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it would bar Chinese airlines from serving U.S. airports beginning 16 June as long as American carriers remain prohibited from flying to China. Delta and United had sought permission to resume service to China, but the CAAC had failed to act on those requests.

The DOT has not provided an update in light of the latest news from China, but previously said it would reconsider the policy if China relaxed its stance.

Though Thursday’s announcement by China represents a more relaxed policy for foreign airlines, the new permission comes with a series of restrictions that will limit service into the summer.

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For now, foreign carriers will only be allowed to operate one flight per week to a single city on a list of approved destinations. That means both Delta, which planned to resume China service this week, and United, which planned to do so later this month, will — at least initially — have to scale down those plans.

Delta intended to operate two daily flights to Shanghai Pudong (PVG), one from Detroit (DTW) and one from Seattle (SEA), both stopping at Seoul Incheon (ICN).

United planned to serve both Beijing Capital (PEK) and Shanghai beginning 15 June. It planned to fly to both cities from San Francisco (SFO), plus a flight from Newark (EWR) to Shanghai.

Now, both airlines will have to choose which routes will get priority.

CAAC’s new guidelines have a phased plan for allowing foreign carriers to increase their schedules to China.

Airlines will be allowed to move to two flights per week, so long as no arriving passengers test positive for COVID-19 for three consecutive weeks.

The CAAC said it will bar airlines from operating for a week if five passengers on any single flight test positive for COVID-19, and will suspend carriers for four weeks if 10 passengers or more test positive.

That policy puts the onus on carriers to make sure their customers are coronavirus-free, possibly turning up the pressure on airlines to devise health checks for passengers travelling to China.

Previously, foreign carriers had already been permitted a single weekly flight to China, but that policy had a large asterisk: they could only operate if they were serving China during the week of 12 March. Most international airlines, including all U.S. carriers, had already stopped their routes to China by then, as fears about spreading coronavirus mounted. So, 95% of foreign operators were effectively barred from serving China, according to Reuters.

CAAC’s new policy removes that schedule restriction.

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

Chinese carriers have continued serving the U.S. with passenger and cargo-only flights throughout the pandemic, so the two countries have not been totally cut off from one another. It’s unclear if the CAAC’s contagion restrictions will apply to China-based carriers as well.

Even as restrictions for carriers relax, China is still barring most foreign nationals from entering the country, so only Chinese citizens will be able to avail themselves of the flights that are operating for the time being.

Featured photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images.

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