Chinese airlines plan to cut international flights over COVID-19 concerns: sources
Published: Mar 16, 2020 11:22 PM

International passengers line up at a distance of 1 meter between each other when handing in the health declaration cards at the Beijing Capital International Airport. Photo: Liu Xin/GT

Discussions are underway among major Chinese airlines including Air China, China Southern, and China Eastern on slashing international flights to help prevent overseas coronavirus (COVID-19) carriers from entering the country as infections worldwide continue to rise, an inside source told the Global Times on Monday.

Announcements on which flights and routes will be affected are forthcoming once the airline companies finalize their decisions, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another separate source the Global Times on Monday that details of the reduction of international flights will depend on the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) requirements.

A senior official with the CAAC, Zhu Tao, said at a press conference on Monday that the civil aviation industry helps bring Chinese nationals home and maintains international travel, but will also serve the country's anti-epidemic efforts. Zhu did not mention plans to reduce flights.

There have also been reports on canceled flights between China and the UK. For instance, an Air China flight between London and Beijing scheduled for Monday was canceled due to public security concerns.

Qi Qi, an independent market analyst, drew a clear distinction between the airlines' planned reduction in international flights and some countries' blanket ban on international travel, noting that it was necessary for public safety. 

"Reducing flights between China and countries with the outbreaks based on individual cases and anti-epidemic capabilities is necessary and also for the health of repatriates," Qi told the Global Times on Monday.

However, reducing international flights could exert greater pressure on Chinese passenger carriers, which have already been through rough times, according to Zheng Hongfeng, CEO of VariFlight. 

"Chinese airlines are bleeding, and are still operating at a reduced capacity at the request of the country. They are making huge sacrifices," Zheng told the Global Times on Monday.

The reduction in international flights came less than two weeks after Chinese officials in early March offered cash incentives to airlines to resume international flights, underscoring rapid changes amid the global pandemic and mounting pressure for Chinese officials to stop the virus influx entering from overseas.

Domestic COVID-19 cases continue to drop, but the number of imported cases has risen recently, as some Chinese living abroad are returning home to avoid deteriorating conditions overseas or to seek treatment at home. 

On Sunday, there were 16 new confirmed cases, 12 were imported cases, and four were from Hubei Province, according to data from the National Health Commission (NHC) on Monday. 

Mi Feng, a senior official with the NHC, said at a press conference on Monday that preventing imported cases from entering China has become the "top priority" and urged the public not to travel abroad.

After the World Health Organization (WHO) designated COVID-19 a global pandemic, the number of people crossing Chinese borders jumped to 120,000 daily, of which 20,000 entered in by air, Liu Haitao, a senior official with the National Immigration Administration, said Monday.

A few imported cases have sparked recent criticism and concern among the public. Over the weekend, news about a Chinese national, who couldn't get a test in the US, hid her symptoms so she could return to China, gained widespread outrage. 

Beijing officials announced that international travelers must undergo a 14-day quarantine, and at their own expense. To address the quarantine increase, city officials reopened the Beijing Xiaotangshan Hospital, built in 2003 during the SARS outbreak.