Delta and United are looking to restart flights to China. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is largely under control there. It is home to several important business markets. Delta owns a stake in China Eastern and has viewed Shanghai as a hub, while for United the country is their sixth largest international market. (For American, despite owning a stake in China Southern, the country has mostly been a place to light cash on fire.)
However they’re caught up in escalating tensions between the U.S. and China. President Trump has made a ‘tough on China’ stance a centerpiece of his re-election campaign. He’s said he wants ‘compensation’ for the coronavirus outbreak, blaming Chinese obfuscation for delaying the world’s understanding of what we’re dealing with. China clearly downplayed the threat of person-to-person spread of the virus into mid-January, and has juked its own stats on infections and deaths, though the U.S. failed to take decisive action in the weeks following a clear understanding posed by the virus.
Tensions are further escalating as China seeks to assert greater control over Hong Kong and crush dissent while the world is distracted by COVID-19.
China is standing in the way of re-starting air service by U.S. carriers as part of geopolitical gamesmanship. Although, in response, the U.S. is imposing bureaucratic costs on Chinese airlines.
For now China wants to permit U.S. carriers to each operate just one flight per week to the country. The opening gambit is no flights, because U.S. airlines weren’t operating China flights in mid-March, but they would agree to one flight since Chinese airlines are only being permitted to fly once a week by their regulator.
The problem facing the US carriers is that the CAAC, in an effort to stop imported cases of Covid-19, ordered all airlines to use their flight schedules for the March 16-22 week as a benchmark to determine how many flights they could operate to China until further notice. By that date, US airlines had “completely ceased flying passenger service to China,” according to the Department of Transportation.
China also wants U.S. airlines be be liable for passengers arriving positive for COVID-19 on their flights, which would “violate the countries’ air transport agreement.” Of course it’s precisely that sort of liability that the U.S. President seeks to impose on China, whose people traveled by plane to the U.S. carrying the virus (although much of the East Coast outbreak is attributable to people traveling with the virus from Europe).
The U.S. is retaliating by requiring Chinese airlines to file detailed plans, and holding out the possibility that it might object to those plans as against the public interest. China is furious at the looming threat, despite imposing restrictions of their own.
While China certainly lacks clean hands in its early approach to the spread of the virus, that issue now serves as a primary means of the President deflecting blame over the way the crisis unfolded in the U.S. Unquestionably the CDC and FDA performed very badly, although the stronger argument would be simply that we were unprepared for a major virus the same way that Western European democracies were generally unprepared.