China, US mull more direct flights

Experts said they believe various sectors and entities of the civil aviation industry still need to work together to overcome difficulties.


Chinese and US flags flutter outside the building of an American company in Beijing. [Photo/Agencies]

June 22, 2023

JAKARTA – China and the United States have agreed to actively explore travel market potential for more direct passenger flights.

“Regulators of China and the US have maintained communications regarding the issue. China is willing to work with the US to promote the increase of flights, based on flexible and pragmatic principles,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning during a briefing on Tuesday.

On Sunday, the two sides reached an agreement in Beijing during the talks between State Councilor and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Industry experts said China-US flights have remained at a low level due to COVID-19. Meanwhile, the two sides also agreed to encourage the expansion of cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries, which could boost travel.

The two sides will welcome more students, scholars and business professionals to visit each other and the respective governments will help provide support and convenience for such purposes, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

In early May, the US Department of Transportation had approved Chinese carriers to introduce four additional direct flights. In response, Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Xiamen Airlines submitted applications to augment the number of their flights to and from the US.

Since May 30, there have been 24 weekly roundtrip direct flights in all between China and the US, including eight weekly direct flights operating between Los Angeles and Chinese mainland cities. New York is the destination for the other four direct flights operated by Chinese carriers.

So far this year, airlines have continued to resume more passenger flights between the world’s two largest economies. Yet, the volume is still far from the peak level seen in the pre-pandemic period, when the number of weekly direct flights between the two countries exceeded 300, industry sources said.

“The coordination between the two countries takes time. In addition, it’s worth noting that compared with 2019, passenger demand for China-US flights has declined. For instance, students’ demand for studies in the US has dropped due to Sino-US trade frictions, and it’s unlikely to return to the 2019 level quickly,” said Zou Jianjun, a professor at the Civil Aviation Management Institute of China.

Zou also said operating direct China-US flights is a challenge for US carriers as they have concerns about flying over conflict zones like Russia. In the past, to ensure fair competition, China had agreed to a plan that Chinese and US carriers should operate an identical number of direct China-US flights, with each carrier having a right to choose its routes.

He said he expects the plan to continue for some time. But, some industry sources said US carriers appear to believe route diversions from Russia make flights longer and inflate costs, hence seem a bit reluctant to add more direct flights, unlike their Chinese counterparts. US carriers are not inclined to cede market share to Chinese airlines either.

During a recent seminar organized by the China Air Transport Association, industry experts said in the second quarter, airlines continued to suffer losses and faced significant operational pressures.

Experts also said they believe various sectors and entities of the civil aviation industry still need to work together to overcome difficulties. They said they remain cautiously optimistic about air travel market’s prospects in the second half.

For July, a one-way economy-class ticket for a China-US direct flight is priced around 20,000 yuan ($2,790). Before the pandemic, a roundtrip ticket sold for less than 5,000 yuan, said Group, China’s leading online travel agency.

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