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Tensions ease between US, China over airline flights

Air China 747 jumbo jet landing at San Francisco International Airport, October 2018. (Photo: Flickr/Colin Brown Photography)

Chinese airlines can continue operating four scheduled passenger flights per week to the U.S. after the Department of Transportation on Monday lifted earlier restrictions on air access over a dispute with China about treatment of U.S. airlines

The DOT modified a June 5 order limiting Chinese carriers to a total of two weekly flights after the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) granted operating permissions to Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) and United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) to each operate two weekly flights to China.

The order primarily affects the four Chinese carriers – Air China, China Eastern, China Southern and Xiamen Airlines – that are currently providing air service to the U.S. It’s a positive development for cargo shippers because it ensures belly space for freight at existing levels during a period of scarce cargo capacity and paves the way for more flights as travel demand increases.

The DOT early this month planned to block Chinese airlines from flying to the U.S. after Chinese authorities were slow to approve requests from U.S. carriers to reintroduce limited service that had been suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak. The department quickly revised its decision and reciprocated when CAAC granted two U.S. flights per week. Delta and United were not satisfied with the Chinese grant of authority and certain biosafety conditions for operating the flights.

China has been very stingy about allowing foreign carriers to resume service out of caution against reintroducing the virus to China, where the outbreak began. But the decision to freeze out U.S. airlines and the U.S. response were intertwined with a series of geopolitical disputes that had increased bilateral tensions during the Trump administration. 

“We find that, while the CAAC’s recent actions continue to preclude U.S. carriers from fully exercising their rights under the [ U.S.-China Civil Air Transport] Agreement and remain a significant concern to the Department, these latest actions represent positive progress and an important first step toward restoring a fair and equal opportunity for U.S. carriers to compete in the U.S.-China passenger market,” the DOT decision said. 

Air China and China Southern are major players in the air cargo space, with fleets of all-cargo aircraft that supplement the belly space of their widebody passenger planes. China Eastern also flies a significant amount of cargo in its passenger aircraft. 

Delta Air Lines says it will resume service to China with two weekly flights to Shanghai from Seattle next week and starting in July once a week from Seattle and once from Detroit, via Seoul, South Korea.

“We are pleased to be reentering the China market and are grateful to the U.S. Government for its diligent efforts to ensure fair access to China for U.S carriers,” a Delta spokeswoman said.

The airline has agreed to take passengers’ temperatures before departure, the Wall Street Journal reported. Previously, Chinese authorities wanted airlines to take passengers temperatures during the flight. 

American Airlines has previously said it plans to resume flights to China in October. 

(Click here for more stories by Eric Kulisch)

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]