The US government said on Wednesday that it would bar Chinese airlines from flying passengers to US destinations, starting on June 16, in retaliation for Beijing’s refusal to let American carriers resume service to China.
Last month, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) requested permission from the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) for US carriers to resume flights to the country. But the CAAC merely extended an order that limited all domestic and foreign carriers to international flight schedules in place as of March 12.
In doing so, CAAC was rejecting DOT’s request. US carriers had voluntarily halted passenger service to China in February, as part of efforts to block the spread of Covid-19, after US President Donald Trump ordered immigration authorities to bar most non-US citizens travelling from China from entry into the US.
The US-based Delta Air Lines and United Airlines maintained some cargo service to China, and have sought permission to resume passenger service this month.
DOT’s order applies to Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Hainan Airlines Holding and all of their subsidiaries. Air China, China Eastern and China Southern have continued operating direct passenger flights to the US, although at reduced frequencies owing to the coronavirus pandemic.
Keeping US air carriers out of China’s passenger market violates a bilateral air transport agreement signed in 1980, after Washington first established formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979, according to the DOT order.
“In establishing an arbitrary ‘baseline’ date of March 12, 2020 … the CAAC notice effectively precludes US carriers from reinstating scheduled passenger flights to and from China and operating to the full extent of their bilateral rights,” the announcement said.
“Chinese carriers may be using passenger charter operations as a way of circumventing the CAAC Notice limitations on scheduled passenger service and thereby further increasing their advantage over US carriers,” the department said, citing information “learned through diplomatic channels”.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We look forward to resuming passenger service between the United States and China when the regulatory environment allows us to do so,” United said in an emailed response to questions.
On May 22, the Trump administration accused China’s government of making it impossible for US airlines to resume service to China and ordered four Chinese carriers to file flight schedules with the US government.
The Chinese carriers operate no more than one scheduled flight a week to the US but also have flown charter flights, mostly to help students return home.
On January 31, because of the coronavirus crisis, the US government barred from entry most non-US citizens who had been in China within the previous 14 days – but did not impose restrictions on Chinese flights.
Air China, China Eastern and China Southern have all maintained scheduled passenger service to New York City area airports, among other US flights.
Delta and United are flying cargo flights to China. Delta had requested approval for a daily flight to Shanghai Pudong airport from Detroit, Michigan, and Seattle, Washington; United had asked to fly daily to Shanghai Pudong from San Francisco, California, and Newark, New Jersey – as well as between San Francisco and Beijing.