China will allow U.S. flights after Trump administration threatens ban on Chinese airlines

June 4, 2020, 7:17 AM UTC

China on Thursday said it will allow U.S. passenger airlines to resume limited service to China, one day after the Trump administration said it will bar Chinese passenger airlines flying to and from the U.S. starting in mid-June.

It’s not immediately clear whether the U.S. will go forward with its ban on Chinese airlines in light of China relaxing its restrictions on U.S. carriers. On Wednesday, a U.S. Department of Transportation statement announcing the suspension of Chinese carriers’ service to the U.S. said the department “will allow Chinese carriers to operate the same number of scheduled passenger flights as the Chinese government allows ours.”

Beijing’s move on Thursday is a rare instance of de-escalation in U.S.-China affairs. Relations between the two countries are at their worst in decades as disputes over the coronavirus, technology restrictions, and Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong have deepened a rift that January’s phase one trade deal failed to alleviate.

The U.S. ban on Chinese airlines was itself a response to China’s aviation authority not acknowledging appeals in May from Delta Air Lines and United Airlines to resume their China flights in June.

The Trump administration ban, if enacted, would block seven Chinese airlines, including Air China, which flew 19% of the 8.5 million passengers who traveled between the U.S. and China on direct flights in 2018, the most recent data available. United carried around 17% of U.S.-China direct flight passengers, and Delta transported over 10% of passengers in 2018.

When China’s aviation authority reduced foreign airline flights into China to one per week on March 26 amid the pandemic, the three major U.S. carriers—American Airlines, United, and Delta—had already voluntarily stopped their service to China owing to the spread of the coronavirus within the country.

The coronavirus has decimated the global air travel industry. As the first country hit by the coronavirus outbreak, China was also the first to curtail air travel.

Domestic air travel in China dropped from 12,814 flights on Jan. 23 to 1,662 flights on Feb. 13 after flight cancellations and government-imposed travel lockdowns. Outbound international flights from China sank too, from 2,032 departing flights on Jan. 23 to 354 on Feb. 13.

The measures in question only pertain to passenger flights. Cargo flights—including unused passenger planes repurposed as cargo carriers—continue to flit between the U.S. and China.

According to the U.S. DOT statement, the ban on Chinese carriers will go into effect on June 16, but could start before that date “if the President so orders.”

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