U.S. Airlines Unite Against China, Seek To Block New Flights Between The Two Countries

U.S. airlines wrote to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking that the government keep limiting the number of flights permitted between the U.S. and China. The letter was signed by airline unions as well.

  • Chinese airlines were allowed to increase weekly roundtrip U.S. flights from 35 to 50 effective March 31. That’s down two-thirds compared to pre-pandemic levels provided for in bilateral agreements. U.S. carriers can operate the same number of flights but haven’t yet done so.

  • U.S. carriers demand that “U.S. workers and businesses are guaranteed equality of access in the marketplace” in China before Chinese airlines are permitted to increase their U.S. flying. Foreign airlines of course generally do not have equal access in the U.S. marketplace either, even under Open Skies agreements (which American, Delta, and United sought to undermine prior to the pandemic when seeking protectionism from Gulf airlines).

On behalf of the U.S. aviation industry, we are writing to urge you pause additional passenger flights between the United States and the People’s Republic of China until U.S. workers and businesses are guaranteed equality of access in the marketplace, free from the existing harmful anti-competitive policies of the Chinese government.

The major specific complaint is that Chinese airlines can fly more direct routes than U.S. airlines can. One consequence of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine is that U.S. airlines aren’t allowed to use Russian airspace while in many cases foreign airlines are.

  • U.S. airlines are banned from using Russian airspace because the U.S. banned Russian carriers from overflying the U.S.
  • In addition, there are safety concerns about their doing so. However the concerns aren’t so great that all airlines avoid it, nor so great where the U.S. moved to ban use of the airspace on any flights to and from this country.

Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong over Russian airspace (which is why American Airlines had to cease codesharing between New York and Hong Kong) and Air India uses Russian airspace as well.

There’s nothing unique about Chinese airlines using Russian airspace while U.S. airlines cannot. Moreover, it’s a complete non-sequitur because newly-approved flights can be conditioned on avoiding Russian airspace as has been done in the past.

The truth is that U.S. airlines do not want more flights approved between the U.S. and China because,

  • Non-stop demand is more limited than it was prior to the pandemic, as a result of increased U.S. – China tensions, changes in the Chinese economy, and reduced business travel.

  • U.S. airlines don’t really want to add flights to China, especially with the added cost of avoiding Russian airspace. So they don’t want the Chinese adding flights either.

  • And they fear that new Chinese flights wouldn’t just hurt their yields (lower prices) on flights between the U.S. and China, but also on flights elsewhere in Asia as these carriers sell empty seats cheap for connecting traffic.

Before the pandemic there was a rush for Chinese airlines to claim the limited allowable routes on their side between the U.S. and China. They were flying beyond demand, and that depressed fares not just on U.S. – China routes but beyond to Southeast Asia. It was common to find cheap flights to Indonesia, for instance, on Delta partner China Eastern.

Similarly, the volume of flights provided for by agreement between the U.S. and China led to U.S. airlines operating unprofitable flights. American Airlines says that they lost tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars flying between Chicago and China.

U.S. airlines want fewer flights to keep consumer prices high, in order to make more money. It’s as simple as that.

As for the Air Line Pilots Association signing onto this effort, which means fewer long haul widebody flights for their own members too, ideological blinders may be playing a role here.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. I have flown on Air China before, Connecting in Beijing. It will be interesting to see this situation play out.

  2. Why don’t the US fly more South Asia if it has demand? Is the demand low yield, mostly economy so not profitable? Is there no fly agreement to these South Asian Countries? I think Vietnam has direct flight to US.

  3. It’s US government that made the case that American Airlines can not fly Russian airspace. You are allowed to add flights but do not want to, it’s your problem, not Chinese Airlines. It sounded very weird of this complaint.

  4. Just as reminding side note, the Russia overflight ban with American carriers was the result of the *U.S.* FIRST imposing an overflight ban on Russian carriers; in other words, a self-inflicted wound by the U.S. gov’t.

    And yeah, it’s a pretty pathetic effort by the U.S. airline alliance – but as usual, instead of improving their own competitiveness, they try to limit the competition of others.

    Even if one doesn’t think that a full open-skies agreement is appropriate between the U.S. and China, does it really make sense to cap the flights there to less than those currently operated between the U.S. and… Italy?

  5. China is the future and Russia along with them.
    The United states is a dying nation as is most of the Eu.

    China and Russia as well as those other nations oppressed by the west only need to wait out the dying weimer republics

  6. Passengers going to and from China have a lot of options. This situation means that more are taking connecting flights through other countries and those options are keeping a reasonable price point for the nonstop flights that there are. A few years ago China and a lot of other east Asian countries restricted air travel so much it made it difficult to find flights back to the USA due to Covid-19. Fortunately South Korea airlines continued flying with transit passengers allowed so I was able to take an Asiana flight back to LAX from PNH after my EVA flight was force rebooked several times and finally cancelled.

  7. Alert says:
    April 11, 2024 at 6:18 pm
    Chinese food leaves one more hungry than before . Chinese food is a rip-off .

    This is relevant to the article how?

  8. I think it would be reasonable to levy a $200 tax on inbound US citizens, permanent residents & visa holders whose flights have transited Russian airspace.

  9. If the U.S. airlines provide better products, they may just be able to compete. I have switch to non-US flights on international routes as much as possible post-pandemic and I don’t want to switch back. In one AA flight from Rome to Chicago in 2023, the flight attendants were so rude and rush as if I owned them money. In a Delta flight from Shanghai to Detroit this year, the flight attendants were the same. Not to mention the foods offered in these flights were bad too.

    To the U.S.-based airlines, improve your products and services and people will come and pay.

  10. I agree with the author all comes down to economics. When there are a lot of carriers flying to China, due to high cost of flying over Pacific Ocean instead of Russian airspace, US airlines lose more money when they fly more. They don’t want to fly.

    I plan to fly to China this summer. So I am checking the airfares on a regular basis. Here is what I found out American Airline’s tactics when you search their website to book a flight to China:

    – If you do a round trip in May and June. The price is ~$1,700, with 20% main cabin seats still available to book.
    – On July 7, the available price shot up to $22,000 (yes, one extra zero), with 90% main cabin seats available to book. I cannot explain the reason but keep on reading.
    – From July 8 and on, the available prices increase to $2,600, with 95% main cabin seats available to book.
    – Two months ago, all available price was above $22,000 (yes, one extra zero for economy class), with 100% main cabin seats available to book. At the same time, United Airline pulled off all March and on schedules originated from the East coast. At that time, people suspected that more flights would be added and the United just put them out to collect free deposit money. On Feb. 26 (?), two governments agreed to increase weekly flights from 75 to 100 from both sides. Instead of joining the party and increasing the flights, US airlines filed the complaint.

    Our normal demand and supply rule doesn’t apply here: cheaper tickets are usually available when a lot of seats are available. We are seeing the opposite.

    With less than 10% seats booked for busy summer vacation season of July and August, the US airlines can present this statistics to the US government to support their claim that the demand is low. This is a man-made low demand!!!

  11. @George, prices across the Pacific Ocean vary by the airline quite a bit. Even before the pandemic American airlines typically charged more than some of their Asian counterparts. For comparison purposes, I used Asiana Airlines flight OZ203 from LAX-ICN. flightradar24 shows a flight in route avoiding Russian airspace. A trip to Beijing is around $2,000 for a coach flight on July 11 (OZ203, OZ331) and a return on July 25 (OZ334, OZ204). If I do the same dates but from LAX-PNH, the price is maybe $500 lower for a longer trip (PEK is less than 1.5 hours from ICN but ICN to PNH is around 5.5 hours ). If I do the same dates but from LAX-BKK, the price can be in the $1,100 range with shorter trips in the $1,200 range. Airlines charge what they can get away with and that is partially due to competition. Prices are high to PEK due to restricted availability and even though the airplanes aren’t full at this time, I am pretty certain that they will be reasonably full when it is time to fly. I don’t see the avoiding Russian airspace as much of a driver of price of flights to China. Competition and restrictions are more likely greater factors. A lot of travelers like the service provided by some Asian airlines and at a cheaper price, too. Asiana flights across the Pacific can be on A380s. Spend a little bit more to upgrade the coach seat to a coach seat on the upper deck (2-4-2)

Comments are closed.