Airlines eye resumption of regular air travel between China and US after Biden lifts restrictions
Published: Oct 27, 2021 04:28 PM
A Delta Air Lines plane is seen at Shanghai Pudong International Airport on October 25 Photo: Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

A Delta Air Lines plane is seen at Shanghai Pudong International Airport on October 25 Photo: Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

On Monday, US President Joe Biden signed an order, saying that starting from November 8, foreign national travelers to the US will be required to be fully vaccinated. The order will also lift travel restrictions on China, India and much of Europe. The move is being viewed as one of the biggest leaps toward allowing travelers into the US, and is believed to boost the growth of international tourism to "far exceed expectations."

Following the order, when and how the air transportation market between China and the US, the world's two biggest markets, can resume regular air travel has also been in the spotlight. However, market watchers and insiders are taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the US policy toward China. 

The relaxation of border restrictions is aimed at boosting global travel, but the transatlantic route between the US and Europe has already been significantly improved, Wong Hong, US carrier Delta Air Lines' president for China, told the Global Times in a recent interview. 

Although the market demand is rising, the increase in passenger volume between China and the US will not be too big, given current COVID-19 measures, he added. 

Delta Air Lines currently has four flights a week from Seattle and Detroit to Shanghai, which are being operated with the carrier's new A330-900 and A350-900 aircraft. Although they all need to make technical stops in South Korea, they make the airline the only American carrier that has direct flights to China from the US.

To curb imported COVID-19 cases, China has implemented a strict policy, which limits airlines to just one international flight a week, while passenger capacity is capped at 75 percent. Foreign carriers can also operate only one flight a week to China.

China's aviation regulator is likely to keep the current tight caps on international flights throughout the first half of 2022, Reuters reported in September, citing analysts.

Air China management told analysts in the Reuters report that the recovery of China's outbound travel would be slower than that in the US and Europe, noting that the vast majority of developing countries have not achieved high vaccination rates. They added that the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) was not expected to loosen restrictions until the second half of 2022.

The CAAC said in August that due to the increasing number of imported COVID-19 cases, a number of flights have been suspended, and weekly international flights accounted for only 2 percent of the pre-pandemic level in 2019.

Wong said that the demand for US-China flights was very high during the summer, as many Chinese students travel to the US to prepare for the start of the new semester. Now, demand has returned to a more manageable level.