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US allows China to boost passenger flights to 50 per week as summer travel season nears

By Laura He, CNN

Hong Kong (CNN) — Washington will allow Chinese airlines to further increase their direct passenger flights to the United States, as it takes another step in gradually restoring aviation services that had been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and an air travel dispute between the two countries.

From March 31, Chinese carriers will be able to fly 50 weekly round trips to and from the United States, up from 35 currently, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) said in a statement Monday.

But even with the increase, it’s still only a fraction of the more than 150 weekly round trips allowed by each side before curbs were imposed in early 2020 due to the coronavirus.

The DOT said it had made the decision after assessing market conditions and considering the public interest.

This is “a significant step forward in further normalization of the US-China market in anticipation of the summer 2024 traffic season,” it said in the statement.

The move marks the fifth time the US regulator has increased the quota granted to Chinese carriers following China’s post-covid reopening. The first was in May 2023.

“The gradual recovery of the US-China flight route is a positive catalyst to the summer peak outbound traffic and cost improvement as it increases wide-body utilization,” Citi analysts said in a research note on Tuesday.

The DOT said it was in talks with the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) about a “gradual” reopening of bilateral air services.

Those services plunged following the emergence of Covid-19 in 2020. By February of that year, most American airlines had suspended flights to China due to fears about the coronavirus.

In the next month, the CAAC slashed international flights to China, citing the need to curb imported Covid-19 cases. Foreign carriers that were still flying to the country were limited to just one weekly flight. The ones that had previously stopped services weren’t allowed in at all.

The move by the Chinese regulator, which effectively banned many airlines from flying to China, triggered a dispute between Beijing and Washington. It further strained relations that had already deteriorated because of questions over the origin of the pandemic and Beijing’s move to tighten its grip over Hong Kong.

In response to Beijing’s restrictions, the Trump administration announced in June 2020 that it would block Chinese passenger airlines from flying into or out of the United States.

Despite the two sides amending their rules after negotiations, the number of flights between the United States and China still fell significantly during the pandemic.

After China removed most of its Covid restrictions in December 2022, the DOT announced in May 2023 that it would allow Chinese airlines to boost their US weekly round-trip flights from eight to 12, marking the first increase in three years. The number was equal to the number of flights Beijing had permitted for American carriers.

Since then, the DOT raised the quota three more times before Monday’s increase.

Last August, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo visited Beijing and said she wanted to promote people-to-people exchange with a focus on travel and tourism.

“Before Covid, as many as 3 million Chinese travelers visited the United States annually, contributing more than $30 billion to the US economy. We look forward to once again welcoming Chinese group travel to the United States,” she said in a statement issued at the time.

But challenges to a full restoration of travel still exist.

In February 2023, two US senators urged the Biden administration to stop Chinese airlines and other non-US carriers from flying over Russia on US routes, as it gives them an advantage in fuel burn and flying time, according to Reuters.

In June, Reuters reported that newly approved flights by Chinese airlines were indeed avoiding Russian airspace on their way to the United States.

Russia has banned US and other foreign airlines from flying over its airspace, in retaliation for Washington closing its sky to Russia in March 2022 following its invasion of Ukraine.

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