Air Travel Is Roaring Back Everywhere – So Why Not Between The U.S. And China?

This month the number of non-stop commercial flights between the U.S. and China totals 48. That’s not per day, across all airlines. That’s for the entire month, according to schedule data from Cirium Diio Mi.

  • United is operating 16 San Francisco – Shanghai flights.
  • Air China is operating 4 Los Angeles – Beijing and 4 Los Angeles – Shenzhen flights.
  • China Southern is operating 4 Los Angeles – Guangzhou and 4 New York JFK – Guangzhou flights.
  • Xiamen Airlines is operating 8 Los Angeles – Xiamen flights.
  • China Eastern is operating 8 New York JFK – Shanghai flights.

That’s a huge contrast to the service that existed prior to the pandemic. In addition to flights between major US cities and Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu, Hainan Airlines flew Changsha–Los Angeles as well as Chongqing–Los Angeles and New York; Sichuan Airliens flew Hangzhou-Los Angeles and Jinan-Los Angeles; and Xiamen Airlines flew Shenzhen–Seattle, Fuzhou–New York, and Qingdao–Los Angeles.

Service, though, is returning gradually. Brian Znotins, the American Airlines Vice President of Network Planning, shared in an employee ‘Crew News’ meeting with pilots last week that they’ll be able to serve Dallas Fort Worth – Shanghai four times per week starting in March and running through summer and that this will no longer require a stop in Seoul, a procedure put in place to avoid crew being quarantined on arrival.

For..well over a year we were operating one a one-stop basis via Seoul, so that we could position our crews through Seoul and not have them stay over in Shanghai.

Through the last few weeks…we’ve worked out an agreement with the Chinese government and the U.S. government that we can now operate non-stop to China so no more stop in Seoul. We have been working with the APA on acceptable hotel accommodations there, and we found a resolution to that.

And furthermore, we’ve actually been able to increase our non-stop flights from DFW from twice a week to four times a week. That matches now United’s and Delta’s allocation and matches the Chinese carriers as well. So we’re in a really good spot, able to offer the non-stop service, demand is coming back in China, our flights are full we’re doing very well.

So why haven’t flights to China returned faster?

  • Corporate travel is down, and that was driving airline desire to fly there. Apple was the primary customer for United’s San Francisco – Shanghai service. It’s no surprise that flight has come back in a limited way.

  • Tensions have been mounting between China and the U.S., and opportunities to do business there are more limited. Indeed, opportunities for the Chinese to do business in China are more limited now than they were earlier in Xi Jinping’s time in power. Being a billionaire in China has similar excess mortality as billionaires in Russia.

  • China has only just passed its major virus wave after pulling the band aid off of Zero Covid. An unknown seven figure number of people died. Many people still aren’t allowed to go there.

  • China imposed strict limits on flights from the U.S., ostensibly as part of its Covid protocols. In response the U.S. imposed limits on flights to the U.S. by Chinese airlines. Those have been modestly relaxed.

  • Before the pandemic these flights weren’t always profitable. Chinese airlines flew to the U.S. to squat routes (China won’t allow more than one of its airlines to fly a given route, so Chinese carriers would start a route to block others from getting there first.) In the 15 years leading up to the pandemic the number of flights between the U.S. and China quintupled. That meant very low fares.

    American Airlines dropped its Chicago to Beijing and Shanghai flights in 2018. American dropped LA to Beijing and Shanghai and planned to move its Shanghai service to Seattle.

    United dropped San Francisco – Xi’an and San Francisco – Hangzhou. Hawaiian Airlines dropped Honolulu – Beijing.

U.S. airlines had been heavily committed to China, but they too were squatting routes. Since there’s no Open Skies treaty between the U.S. and China (and as a result, no joint ventures permitted either) the Department of Transportation handed out allowable frequencies. U.S. carriers tried to grab those, even when they didn’t have great flying opportunities, in case they were useful in the future and to block competitors.

Delta had purchased a stake in China Eastern and made real progress aligning with them. Naturally, then, American Airlines followed Delta and bought a stake in China Southern. But American never flew to China Southern’s home in Guangzhou, and in 2019 wrote down the value of its investment by a quarter.

Flying between the U.S. and China is returning slowly, with less optimism than it once had.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Or may be many people who might have previously found visiting China interesting no longer have the slightest interest in setting foot their now or anytime soon. A lot has changed in three years.

  2. Pandemic extremism, CCP increasing authoritarianism, Taiwan threats, support for Russia, relocation of U.S business to Mexico all work to put China on the “avoid” list for many.

  3. I have no desire to go to China, Russia or North Korea. The world is a big place. I don’t need to go there when there are plenty of other places to visit.

  4. I had 2 trips to China booked and then canceled. First because (Canadian)TA went bust, the other by COVID-19. Since then, I’ve given up and now have no desire to visit China, spend my money there, get exposed to CCP monitoring, etc. Many other reasons are listed above, by others…

  5. China subsidized the international operation of its airlines to the tune of $3-4 billion per year so that Chinese citizens could travel the world. Even before the pandemic, they decided that might not have been a decent economic investment.
    In a controlled economy, all the Chinese government has said is that they want their citizens to stay home and that is what is happening.
    Japan is NOT a controlled economy but their citizens don’t want to travel internationally either.
    All of the big 3 US airlines petitioned the DOT to not require them to fly their routes to Tokyo Haneda which is limited access as well as China which is by agreed upon treaty between both sides.
    It is doubtful that China-US travel will ever return (at least for years) to pre-pandemic levels.
    Delta and United have both pulled their LAX-Shanghai flights even for longer term schedules because it is unlikely there will ever be enough frequencies added to support it.

    btw, Delta is the only one of the big 3 that was consistently been profitable across the Pacific. American lost hundreds of millions competing with Chinese airlines from LAX to Shanghai and Beijing and decided to drop its LAX to China operations altogether. United admitted what I have been saying for years that their Asia operations have been losing money and they are now profitable now that they are not flying near as much capacity to China and HKG.

    Delta has been flying the same amount of Chinese flights as United during the pandemic and AA had a lesser amount. Now, it is 4 weekly for each carrier. Delta is splitting its Shanghai service between Seattle and Detroit while AA is using DFW for all 3 and UA is using SFO.

    Meanwhile, Delta’ s joint venture hub at Seoul continues to grow demonstrating the shifting geopolitical and economic trends in Asia.

  6. There is another reason. It’s more costly now for US airlines to fly to China from the Eastern half of the US, with the Russian airspace closed to them. Without access to the polar routes (which the Chinese airlines can still access), they’re simply uncompetitive on US-China routes.

  7. In general, the fascination, sense of opportunity, etc of traveling to China has come way down under the Xi policies, both from a business sense and a leisure sense. I could potentially see myself going back, but it is simply not high on the agenda. Within Asia, Singapore, Korea, Southeast Asia, Japan are higher priorities. I do want to visit Hong Kong again before things really clamp down there.

  8. As SFOPVG shows, money overrides all sentiment.
    China travel will recover when corporate bosses say so and send their underlings on ‘business’ there.

  9. Tony,
    that is also true for travel to Seoul from the US. look at the flight tracking for any US or S. Korean flights and you will see they are flying over Japan and then making a right turn to avoid overflying Russia which they used to do.
    S. Korea is a strong US military ally but also remember that the Russians shot down a Korean Airlines flight once.

    S. Korea traffic is coming back. Dynamics in both China and Japan have probably shifted permanently and in favor of Delta and Korean Airlines and away from United, which had a large presence in both China and Japan and a partnership JV with ANA, and American which has a strong relationship with JL but has had a weak presence on its own metal.

  10. I plan to visit Asia, but I would prefer Singapore, Korea, Vietnam. They’re a lot friendlier and interesting than CCP’s China.

  11. Hi Gary, fellow Boardingarea Writer,

    48 flights for the month. Crazy.

    Though, you forgot one nugget: China isn’t issuing tourist visas due to “science.”

    Then again, TWOV (transit without a visa) options are available.


  12. Great post. This indeed is quite worth noting.

    A small correction is that you need to count the flights to Hong Kong, because there are very easy transfer between Hong Kong airport to various locations in the mainland, by short ferry or bus rides. Hong Kong airport does count as a main entry point to mainland China.

    Another interesting thing to note is that the fare between US and China remains very high – ~3000 USD roundtrip in coach. The airlines who operate those routes are making money. Saver-level or partner awards to China are basically nonexistent. Would it be possible that the airlines just want to keep the status quo (high fare, moderate frequency) as long as possible?

    The demand is absolutely there. There are >1 million residents in the Los Angeles area alone who have relatives or friends in the Greater China area / US companies continue to do business in China, etc.

  13. mike line,
    Mainland China and HKG are under separate air service treaties with the US.
    As noted, China has dramatically reduced the number of US carrier flights and the US reciprocated to Chinese airlines.
    US airlines chose not to fly nonstop to mainland China because of pandemic restrictions including crew accommodations and did the same thing to HKG but there were no reductions in allowable flights between the US and HKG.
    There is a far better change that HKG demand will return but so far no US airlines are flying to HKG.
    Cathay Pacific is flying from the US to HKG and initially respected Russian airspace sanctions but has chosen to end those in order to operate its JFK-HKG flight within limits of its aircraft.

    part of the reason why transpacific airfares are so high is because the Chinese airlines are not flying a huge amount of capacity that they previously did – and they connected passengers to other parts of Asia just as the Japan and S. Korean airlines do as well as Cathay Pacific.

    As US carriers pull back on their US to Japan flights due to a lack of demand, there is not much hope that transpacific airfares will come back down any time soon

  14. however, United is reinstating SFO-HKG but cannot fly EWR-HKG due to Russian airspace restrictions and the limitations of its fleet.

  15. Tim,

    Good to see some increase of frequency to HKG. Keep in mind that CX has now returned to ~3x daily frequency from LAX to HKG, and from other US cities.

    The problem is that even so the demand for US-China traffic cannot be met. Now every CX flight is filled to the last seat, including Y, C, and F, and most passengers connect into mainland China with CX’s very extensive network there.

    UA is adding back direct China flights more quickly than AA/Delta. That’s probably the right move given the very high demand for departure from SF/Bay Area. For example, you would need to wait for hours in lines to get a visa from the Chinese consulate in SF. AA should move quickly and make use of its strong base in LAX and SEA, where the demands for China flights are also very high. The Russian airspace is not an issue for departure from the west coast

  16. Could you post an article on Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong which would be FAR MORE interesting and practical?
    I still don’t see any flights from NYC which there used to be several everyday.
    How am I going to get to Bali on One World in Preem Econ?

  17. mike line,
    it is simply factually incorrect to say that United is re-adding flights back to mainline China than other US airlines.
    There have been a restricted number of flights allowed by US airline to China throughout the pandemic and Delta and United both applied to the DOT for 4 flights/week while American applied for 2. The Chinese increased the number of allowable flights to 12 flights/week by all US airlines and AA was able to re-add two more – but all US airlines still have just 4 flights/week each.
    United by far has been the slowest of the big 3 to cancel down to its allowable schedule but just did it again for the summer after AA and DL did it months ago.
    All US airlines will be flying nonstop from their US gateways (DFW for AA, SEA and DTW for DL, and SFO for UA) for the first time since pandemic restrictions were implemented.

    The site Aeroroutes tracks airline schedule changes and highlights United’s China/HKG schedule changes that were made over the weekend.

    As for general Asia positioning and strategy, although you and others refer to AA and DL together with UA separately, the 3 have never been similarly sized or had the same strategies.
    AA flew multiple flights at a significant loss and have switched gateways multiple times trying to find the solution that works – ultimately cancelling down to just DFW to China, Seoul, and Tokyo (both airports). They are readding LAX to Tokyo but not China. They have said they want to start SEA-Shanghai but that is highly unlikely since DL and UA are both operating nowhere near the amount of flights they are allocated or want to fly to China so the DOT will not entertain any requests to move gateways – which is what AA will ask to do.
    Pre-pandemic, Delta finalized its plans to shut down Tokyo Narita as a hub and it won permission to transfer all of its remaining US to Tokyo routes to Haneda, becoming the largest foreign carrier at Haneda. It is still not operating all of those flights due to a lack of demand and has won permission not to do so without risk of losing them. Delta had one less flight to China than American but, as noted, all 3 of the US airlines are likely going to be the same size to mainland China until DL and UA can re-add more than what AA is allocated which is DFW to Beijing and Shanghai and then DL and UA will likely stay the same size to China for quite some time. It is highly doubtful that China will ever allow US airlines return to the same amount of flights that they operated pre-pandemic which means DL and UA will likely stay the same size to China.
    Delta rekindled its relationship with Korean and made Seoul its primary hub for connections in Northeast Asia. Delta is already flying more flights to ICN than AA and UA combined and DL will simply be re-adding more flights to ICN over the next few years.
    AA, UA and their Japanese JV partners were playing a risky game of trying to operate hubs at both NRT (which is not capacity limited) and HND (which is) but the drop in demand from Japan
    to the US is likely permanent which makes NRT even less viable than HND which has already significantly pulled local Tokyo revenue away from NRT (same thing happened at London Gatwick compared to Heathrow) making US-NRT flights less and less viable.
    Beyond Tokyo, Seoul and China, UA has a few extra flights to non-Tokyo Japan plus Taiwan and Singapore and HKG – but HKG demand will remain depressed and some routes don’t work due to airspace restrictions.
    There is a very good chance that Delta will add or re-add service to some of those cities while United will simply not have near as many options to grow which makes it very possible if not likely that Delta could overtake United as the largest US carrier to East Asia.

    As for Russian airspace restrictions, Great Circle (shortest distance) routes overfly Russian airspace even on routes like SFO to PVG and HKG with the degree of overflight diminishing as you go south along the Pacific Rim of Asia. Flights to Beijing would overfly Russia as will Delta’s flight from DTW to PVG – which will be longer than it was pre-pandemic just as is true for their Seoul flights.
    United cannot even operate any flights to India other than from Newark because of Russia airspace restrictions so they affect all of Asia.

    It will take longer for it all to settle in but positioning of the US airlines in East Asia will change both because of travel demand and political considerations but also because of alliance changes and how countries in Asia reopen and adapt to a post-covid world – but it would be a mistake to think that the US-Asia market will return to what it was pre-covid either in terms of routes work and what are operationally possible as long as Russian airspace restrictions are in place.

  18. The answer is pretty obvious – thank you JetAway.

    The more interesting question is what are major airlines doing with their aircraft that were formerly assigned to these routes. I’m betting China’s loss will be a plus for SIN, Japan, Korea, India and perhaps even some mostly pure leisure markets.

  19. Can u imagine getting sick in China nowadays. We have seen the healthcare system in detail. Love the country , the sights, the food, in general the service, but will not risk getting sick there, rather be in Singapore or Thailand.

  20. Boraxo,
    the simple answer is that most of the aircraft that formerly flew US to Asia are flying the Atlantic; Europe is not only the most recovered global region but also is being boosted by the strong dollar and American’s willingness to travel.

  21. I watched the Chinese weld people into their apartments. I can’t imagine a tourist would be treated any differently if they were deemed a risk. Hard pass

  22. The visa issue is a flying under the radar. All visas issued before the start of the pandemic are currently invalid.
    And the transit without visa option is only available if you’re departing China for a 3rd country. So you have to do something like US-China(destination)-hkg-us. Not just US-CHINA-US.

  23. As long as frequency allocation remains in the crosshairs of a field of wider geopolitics, expect the retardation of traffic between the two countries. That said, the limited current capacity has made for a golden market yield wise for the services that are now available.

    If one were to assume a short term, forthcoming removal of political barriers that leads to a normalization of frequencies, the capacity/yield outlook should remain pretty stable. Most of the pre-pandemic subsidized capacity – namely HNA Group capacity – has been removed.

    But, there remains enough going forward uncertainty (JetAway’s comment sums up nicely) about China (and Hong Kong) that will suppress organic capacity growth in the mid-term. However, traffic suppression will create new “inorganic” capacity (i.e. – subsidized). The question on that front will be the amount of capacity.

    On that front, the government in Xiamen has introduced a sliding-scale incentive program in a bid to attract new services. Intercontinental services are eligible for the highest potential payments under the program.

  24. Interesting that, according to the comment above, China is not issuing tourist visas. The first trip I had to cancel during the pandemic was an April 2020 visit to Shanghai. I was about to renew my Chinese visa when the pandemic hit. I guess I can’t get a new tourist visa now. I don’t really care, though, because my current interest in visiting China is basically zero.

  25. United leapt out ahead of American and Delta last month is converting SFO-PVG back to nonstop, dropping the ICN stop. There seems to be hiccups in fight time timing. UA 858 PVG-SFO is now getting schedule changes such as a 4/5/23 12:10 I had booked has become 4/6/23 20 20:10.

    2/18/23 got this notification from United “Due to regulatory restrictions, any increase in flying between the United States and China, by any carrier, requires approval by both goverments. As a result, your flight 858 on 4/5/2023 for itinerary XXXXXX has been impacted.”

    For those working to get around still mostly crazy high pricing of US-China nonstop/direct flights, the relaxed China rules are allowing 3rd-country connections without new testing. For example Delta has had some SkyMiles awards Delta + Korean for 81,500 miles with long ICN layover compared to the Delta direct flights with ICN stop at 255,000+ (economy). Under the old rules that cheaper award switching airlines in ICN would not have been allowed with meeting China’s requirements for testing departing in Korea as well as departing US.

  26. Stefan,
    just because United published schedules to China which it, other airlines and both the US and Chinese government knew they could not fly doesn’t mean they leapt ahead of anything or anyone.
    It simply means that the Chinese government has communicated quite clearl, y that it has imposed capacity limits that are well below treaties it has w/ multiple other countries, did so under the guise of covid but, even as it ripped off covid restrictions for its own citizens, it has not removed all of the capacity restrictions it put in place for international air travel.
    It should be obvious that the Chinese government does not want to return to the levels of international travel that existed pre-covid, both because it incentivized its own citizens to travel internationally and subsidized its own airlines to carry Chinese to other countries which it is not going to do any longer and because there is an obvious growing geopolitical realignment taking place to isolate China from the rest of the world – done both by China and the rest of the world.

    China’s actions will have the greatest impact on United which was the largest US airline to China pre-covid. The DOT, however, is allocating the few available flights to all 3 US airlines on as close to an equal basis as possible which means that UA will not be any larger than DL and AA until each of the latter two airlines are able to fully use their allocated and operational frequencies. Since AA walked away from its LAX to China flights (1/2 of what it was allocated and flying pre-covid), DL will stay neck in neck w/ UA in size until DL operates its 5 daily flights and then, and ONLY THEN, if China allows that many flights, can United possibly be larger than American and United.

    United is simply trying to jump the line, has published schedules not just to China but across its system that are not realistic, and the DOT has increasing become frustrated with airlines doing that because of customer inconvenience and what the DOT believes is deceptive business practices.

    btw, AA just pulled down a bunch of summer flying as well. The DOT is right that multiple airlines are not publishing realistic advance schedules and the two worst offenders appear to be American and United.

  27. @Tim Dunn – what I said regarding ‘leapt ahead’ is that United got a quick jump at going back to nonstop and indeed they have, such as UA 857 yesterday nonstop SFO-PVG, no ICN stop. American and Delta still having passengers diddle around middle of the not on the ground at ICN. Saves hours of travel time and hassle. Timing and frequency are separate considerations that I did not say United was ahead of the others.

  28. The other airlines are re-adding nonstops in days.
    There is no “leaping ahead” going on.
    and it is precisely because United is trying to “leap ahead” of the competition that you have experienced the rescheduling – which is precisely my point.
    There are limits on the number of flights that each side can operate and when they can arrive and depart – because “covid”

    United has repeatedly kept more flights scheduled including to China than other competitors and then had to repeatedly change their schedules to fit what is actually allowed.

  29. @Tim Dunn – United had SFO-PVG back to nonstop on January 27. Delta is planning to have SEA-PVG nonstop from March 17 and DTW-PVG nonstop from March 19. My family member that took Delta SEA-PVG earlier this month would have loved to have United’s non-leap.

  30. @stefan,
    I know when UA restarted its service.
    I am disputing your notion that UA ‘”leapt ahead” of anyone.

    UA has no more ability to add flights any faster than DL or AA.

    And you do realize that the Chinese airlines that have flown to the US (with the same number of flights as allowed by US airlines to China) flew nonstop throughout the pandemic? UA didn’t leap ahead of its competitors AT ALL.
    The Chinese required US airline crewmembers to be subjected to covid restrictions that US airline crews and their unions (where they are unionized – Delta flight attendants are not) would not accept.
    In order to avoid the US’ reciprocal restrictions, Chinese airlines flew double crews so that one set of crew would fly the plane to the US and BOTH would return to China with none entering the US.

    US airlines that stopped in Seoul – none were required to do so by Chinese regulations – did so to protect their crews.

    In case you missed it, covid was still very much out of control in China a month ago – precisely when United restarted nonstop service, requiring its crews to overnight there. Even without the former Chinese government restrictions on crews, it is really stunning that United REQUIRED employees to enter China.
    American and Delta simply were not willing to subject their employees to that risk.

    None of which changes that there is no increase in flights from the US to be allowed by the Chinese until at least October – long after covid will be ancient history even in China.

    United isn’t leaping ahead of anyone and if you think a 6 week headstart in restarting nonstop service equates to a competitive advantage, then I will just let you live with that fantasy.

    Gary is correct. China is not coming back and the Chinese are happy to keep it that way.

    United is the biggest loser. IN yet another market in Asia, United has lost its competitive advantage.

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