Two airlines expected to resume direct flights between China and UK
Published: Mar 09, 2022 07:27 PM
Virgin Atlantic's Boeing 787 at London Heathrow Airport Photo: VCG

Virgin Atlantic's Boeing 787 at London Heathrow Airport Photo: VCG

"I returned from London to Shanghai three months ago, following a transfer in Germany which took more than 30 hours," a Chinese student studying in the UK surnamed Xu told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Xu is not the only person returning home from the UK at a high price. Since late December 2020, China has requested the suspension of regular passenger flights between China and the UK due to the emerging new Omicron strain of the Covid-19 in the UK. 

Following the suspension, a large number of students in the UK chose to book connecting flights or chartered planes to return home. To date, there have been no direct scheduled passenger flights between the two countries for as long as 14 months.

After more than one-year suspension of direct flights between China and the UK, two airlines recently announced that they will resume direct passenger flights from middle March following some coordination between transport officials in both countries.

New options

On March 3, UK airline Virgin Atlantic announced on its Wechat account that following negotiations between the UK Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), Virgin Atlantic was approved to fly two trial direct flights between Shanghai and London in mid-March.

The announcement noted that flights from London to Shanghai will operate under limited capacity, while flights from Shanghai to London will have no restrictions. 

From the announcement, this is the same test flight that the Confederation of British Industries planned to execute in February for the preparation of resuming flights between China and the UK.

Five days later, the airline released a China-UK direct flight trial schedule on its Wechat account. The schedule showed that on March 18 and March 25, passengers in London will be able to fly directly to Shanghai on a 12 hour route, while on March 20 and 27, the flights from Shanghai to London only take seven hours.

In addition to Virgin Atlantic, China Southern Airlines also announced on February 25 that it would start flights between Guangzhou and London as early as March 17. It noted that the schedules are for reference only and subject to final government approval.

"This reflects that China is exploring the resumption of international direct flights in the case of mutual recognition of coronavirus outbreak prevention and control standards in both countries," Qi Qi, an industry analyst, told the Global Times on Wednesday, adding that the move will allow for more testing of direct flights in the future.

Ongoing uncertainty

A number of industry insiders noted that the shortest route between China and the UK used to be flying over Russia, but with UK and Russia now banning aircraft from entering each other's airspace, Virgin Atlantic will be forced to detour. 

Wang Yanan, chief editor of Beijing-based Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told the Global Times on Wednesday that the mutual sanctions targeting the aviation sector between the West and Russia may lead to difficulties for direct flights between China and the UK.

"If flights from the UK want to cross Russian airspace, they must be authorized by Russia, but at present, the possibility is very little, so Virgin Atlantic can only take a detour, bypassing Russia as well as the areas of Russia-Ukraine conflict," Wang said.

Following the closure of the relevant airspace, many flights have chosen to avoid the affected airspace. According to a report released by Chinese flight tracking platform Feichangzhun, a total of 54 airlines from 40 countries and regions have re-routed their flights, involving a total of 434 routes, with the most affected being Eurasia intercontinental and intra-European routes.

Wang noted that if the company decided to take a detour, flights may face increased uncertainty. 

The airline should reroute the flights with new requirements including air management, navigation resources and communication security. Moreover, as the routes become longer, both fuel and maintenance costs would likely increase significantly. 

"The ticket prices of the direct flights between China and the UK are expected to rise, but a large number of passengers are still expecting these flights, hoping that they can get tickets as soon as possible," Wang said.