Airline passengers from the United States are likely to face an unprecedented scenario of zero China-bound flights starting next week, as Covid-19 infections continue to surge in the US.
The Chinese government has been tightening containment measures ahead of the Winter Olympics, set to open in Beijing in less than three weeks.
For at least two weeks, starting on Jan. 19, all flights from the US to China have either been canceled or are likely to have to be in compliance with the Chinese aviation regulator’s so-called “circuit-breaker” rule on international flights, according to CNN research of government announcements and published flight schedules.
That Chinese rule, implemented last June, means a flight is automatically suspended for two weeks if five or more passengers test positive upon landing in China. If 10 or more passengers test positive, the suspension period increases.
Some major US airlines say the Chinese government is unnecessarily forcing them to cancel China-bound flights, citing the "circuit-breaker" rule as an issue, and now the US federal government is getting involved.
“China’s actions are inconsistent with its obligations under the U.S.-China Air Transport Agreement,” the US Department of Transportation said in a statement.
The agency says it is “engaging” with the Chinese government and “we retain the right to take regulatory measures as appropriate.”
United Airlines says it has been “forced to cancel” eight flights from San Francisco to Shanghai this month. With only a few days’ notice from the Chinese government, United says it must then quickly rebook passengers onto different flights.
Delta Air Lines and American Airlines are also impacted by China’s measures. American says it has been forced to cancel eight flights between Dallas and Shanghai in January and February.
“US airlines are concerned about the implications of a disruption and are continuing to assess the impact to operations,” Airlines for America, a Washington-based trade group that represents major US carriers, said in a statement Thursday. “We are in communication with the US and Chinese governments to identify a path forward that minimizes impact to travelers.”
More background: Over a third of the 9,356 scheduled international flights from Dec. 24 to Jan. 12 bound for China – already a fraction of pre-pandemic level – were canceled, according to data shown on the app developed by state-owned aviation industry IT provider TravelSky.
During this period, a growing number of passengers on flights from the US – operated by both US and Chinese carriers – have tested positive upon arrival in China, triggering a wave of cancellations just ahead of the Beijing Olympics and the Lunar New Year, the most important holiday in China.
Last month, a Delta flight from Seattle to Shanghai turned around midair because of a change in cleaning procedures at the Chinese airport that “significantly extended ground time and are not operationally viable,” according to the airline. Chinese officials disputed the account, urging the carrier to “protect customers’ legitimate rights.”
China has largely sealed off its borders since March 2020 and continued to stick to a strict zero-Covid policy.