International flights to China resume as coronavirus restrictions ease

Linda Lew

International airlines are starting to resume flights to China after a loosening of aviation restrictions brought in as part of the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lufthansa, part of Europe’s largest airline group, restarted flights to the mainland this week, flying once a week between Frankfurt and Shanghai in the first regular scheduled flights operated by the German carrier since the pandemic began.

“The flights between Shanghai and Frankfurt are hopefully only the first of further Lufthansa Group connections in the coming weeks and months between mainland China and our home markets Germany, Austria, and Switzerland,” said Veli Polat, Lufthansa’s head of sales for Greater China.

United Airlines will resume its route between San Francisco and Shanghai, via Seoul, beginning July 8, according to a company statement, while fellow US carrier Delta Air Lines restarted its China flights this week with twice-weekly trips into Shanghai.

This came after China and the US backed away from a dispute over aviation travel, in a positive development against a larger backdrop of worsening relations between the two countries. In a reciprocal arrangement, two flights per week for each airline will be permitted. Other foreign airlines will be allowed a basic frequency of one flight per week.

“Resuming service to Shanghai from the United States is a significant step in rebuilding our international network,” said Patrick Quayle, United’s vice-president of international network and alliances.

China introduced the “Five Ones” aviation policy at the end of March in an effort to reduce the number of imported coronavirus cases. Just one weekly passenger flight per route, per airline, was permitted into the country.

The policy, combined with suspended flights due to collapsed demand, saw the number of international airlines operating passenger routes into China drop from 123 to 28. At the same time, the number of Chinese airlines still flying fell from 30 to 19, according to data from the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC).

China aviation sector shrinks as outbreak triggers US$5.6 billion in losses

In early June, the White House threatened to block flights from Chinese airlines to the US in retaliation for the policy after the US transport department accused China’s aviation authority of failing to grant US carriers such as United Airlines and Delta permission to resume passenger flights to China while Chinese airlines were continuing to operate.

One day after the White House announcement, the restrictions were loosened to allow one weekly passenger flight from any qualifying international airline, and two per week from US carriers. However, a route “circuit breaker” – based on the number of positive new coronavirus test results from passengers – will still apply.

China Southern Airlines’ Dhaka-Guangzhou route was the first to trigger this circuit breaker when 17 passengers from a June 11 flight tested positive for the new coronavirus upon their arrival in Guangzhou. The route has been suspended for four weeks starting from June 22, according to the CAAC.

Additional reporting by Danny Lee

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