The US Government telegraphed this move on 22 May when it demanded that Chinese airlines file copies of their planned flight schedules for the summer season. And the Department of Transportation followed through this morning. As expected, Chinese airlines will be prohibited from operating service to the USA effective 16 June 2020, or sooner if the President so chooses.
Two key factors drive this specific political escalation. On 26 March 2020 the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) announced it would restrict access for all international service to and from China. The new CAAC policy allows each airline to operate a single international passenger route to/from each foreign country. Moreover, that route is only permitted to operate once per week. But that’s the smaller of the two problems.
US carriers effectively blocked from China under “equal” access rules
Only flying a single route once a week is an onerous restriction. US carriers could potentially work around it, though the crew rest implications are significant. A second factor in the CAAC policy, however, creates far greater challenges.
The CAAC determined that while the one weekly flight was a maximum cap, it was only available to airlines that were operating international service in China on 12 March 2020. By this point the US carriers had all terminated their service to the country, though Chinese carriers were still operating. This means the US cap is set to zero, not one. And this drives the bulk of the dispute.
The US Government believes the date is “arbitrary” and that it precludes US carriers from exercising their rights under the bilateral treaty. Moreover, it destroys the CAAC argument that the rules are applied evenly to US and Chinese carriers as, because of that baseline, only Chinese carriers can operate between the two countries.
On 14 May 2020 US DOT and CAAC authorities discussed these limits and the potential of removing the 12 March baseline rule. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines want to bring back their passenger flights to China and applied to the CAAC for those rights but, thus far, have come up empty.
On 22 May the US asked the Chinese carriers for a list of all scheduled flights, indicating an increased likelihood of action to be taken. And on 25 May the CAAC asserted that the current policies are “equally apply to all domestic and foreign carriers, being fair, equal and transparent.” That letter effectively concluded the negotiations with no progress. Moreover, there is no indication from CAAC when the 12 March rule might change, allowing US carriers to resume flights.
This all leads to today’s ruling, with the US declaring that Chinese airlines will have the same “equal” access to the market as US carriers do: none.
In addition to suspending scheduled services for the Chinese carriers the DOT also indicated “Chinese carriers may be using passenger charter operations as a way of circumventing the CAAC Notice limitations on scheduled passenger services and thereby further increasing their advantage over U.S. carriers in providing U.S.-China passenger services.” As a result the US now intends to apply more strict review of such charter applications and advises “No Chinese carrier should assume that approval of any such applications will necessarily be forthcoming.”
Against a larger political backdrop
While the aviation plays a very visible role in the US-Sino relations it is far from the most significant factor. As China seeks to increase direct control over Hong Kong the US is stepping up its rhetoric, suggesting that trade leniency granted to the island will be revoked. China is suspending purchases of pork and soybeans. And questions remain about the brief détente in the trade war, finally realized earlier this year. Indeed, the flights are but a small piece of the puzzle, but they remain an important one.
Ostensibly the CAAC rule exists to limit the volume of passengers arriving so as to ensure quarantine restrictions can be enforced, though some suspect it may also be a way to protect the Chinese carriers as stronger foreign airlines seek to pull traffic away. Resumption of services will require deft negotiations between the two countries. And the Hong Kong situation may make that harder to deliver right now.
A favor to ask while you're here...
Did you enjoy the content? Or learn something useful? Or generally just think this is the type of story you'd like to see more of? Consider supporting the site through a donation (any amount helps). It helps keep me independent and avoiding the credit card schlock.