Why Russia’s War With Ukraine Triggered Airline Lobbying That’s Driving Up Fares To Asia

U.S. airlines have been lobbying against allowing Chinese airlines to restore flights to the United States that were dropped during Covid. Those limits are the reason U.S. airlines can’t fly to China now, too.

The crux of the issue is Russian airspace restrictions. U.S. airlines can’t overfly Russia as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That means some flights aren’t viable at all, and others take longer and burn more fuel. Chinese airlines don’t face the same restrictions. Meanwhile, there’s not as much demand into China as there once was.

Because of all of the political intrigue, flights between the U.S. and China have been restored slowly. U.S. airlines keep publishing schedules that they know they aren’t going to fly.

  • Currently Chinese airlines are operating 35 flights per week between the U.S and China (5 flights a day to all cities for all of their airlines)

  • This will be allowed to increase to 50 effective March 31, 2024.

  • They flew over 160 flights a week before the pandemic.

China has an odd rule for its airlines. No Chinese airline is allowed to compete with another Chinese airline on these routes. That created a bizarre incentive to squat routes. Airlines would fly from smaller Chinese cities because if they did not, another airline might, and they’d never be able to in the future.

  • Flying a route gave the airline a monopoly on that route against other Chinese carriers
  • And it prevented another airline from getting there first, which would have blocked them from flying it in the future

As a result there were a lot of Chinese planes with empty seats to fill. And that’s why, pre-pandemic, we used to frequently see fare sales under $500 between the U.S. and Asia in coach. There was too much capacity. We won’t see those sorts of fares, in all likelihood, until Chinese airlines recover fully to their pre-pandemic capacity.

Meanwhile U.S. airlines squatted on routes too. Since there was too much capacity (more flights than demand and fares were low), they flew only to make sure they had routes for the future as well. American learned its lesson when it lost “tens of millions if not hundreds of millions” of dollars flying there (narrator: it was hundreds of millions).

Delta had purchased a stake in China Eastern and made some 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.

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. Have any of the US3 announced plans to increase China service with the end of March increase to 50 flights per week?

  2. The US should not allow any flights into or out of the United States which overfly Russia. This world put all airlines on a similar footing. I can’t imagine many US citizens wanting to overfly Russia. No ETOPS divert airports in Russia either.

  3. I agree with @John H. Only flights that don’t overfly Russia should be allowed to land in the USA or overfly the USA. They can land in Mexico or Cuba or Venezuela if they want to.

  4. I’ve recently read a lot of Chinese enter the USA through the southern border so it may make sense to add more China-Mexico flights.

  5. This is China’s fault. We told them that we had an agreement with then that allowed about 160 flights a week, but they limited the USA so we limited the Chinese carriers. Now they want to come back. They should have kept the agreement in place or at least discussed the situation with the DOT.

  6. Gary gets it wrong again. Delta is a premium carrier, offering elite service that is unparalleled. They are able to command higher fares than anyone else. Passengers are willing to give their left one just for the privilege of flying a carrier that is unequaled.

  7. It’s riskier nowadays for US citizens to visit — including even transiting — China and Russia. They have shown an inclination to detain Americans as bargaining chips. But if people want to take a risk to their freedom, it shouldn’t be up to US airlines and their lobbying power and to restrict free people from traveling as they wish.

    For example, I won’t transit pseudo-“US ally” Saudi Arabia without official cover because all it takes is one privileged buffoon from Flyertalk to send them some of my anti-Saudi government comments there and get identified and the Saudis could make my transit in Saudi Arabia a literal pain until some others come to my rescue and get me out of detention.

  8. All (mainland) Chinese operated nonstop flights to the US that were resumed following the end of the strictest phase of Chinese COVID policy (around late 2022: there are 8 weekly flights among them) must avoid Russian airspace. For this reason, for example, MU 587/8 PVG-JFK and CZ 699/00 CAN-JFK both rely on Russian airspace (and never saw frequency increases), while CA 981/2 PEK-JFK (a post-pandemic resumption) avoids Russian airspace even if that means over 16.5 hours on the return leg on bad days of headwind.

    This, in turn, guarantees that US east coast service from China will likely be low on airlines’ priority list. Don’t take this from me, take this from Cathay Pacific, who, following an initial phase of without-exception Russian airspace avoidance, relaxed that rule for their inbound North America East Coast – Hong Kong nonstops, presumably because they’re done diverting their planes to Osaka or Taipei for fuel, and/or ditching bags and passengers on a regular basis. My prediction is that the 15 new weekly frequencies will likely still be catering to the U.S. west coast, mostly LAX/SFO/SEA.

    I find it slightly ironic that this never-explicitly-published compromise (?) is somehow in place, yet airlines from Philippines to Air India to Emirates to Tajikstan flies to US via Russian airspace and nobody has raised a level of grievance against that anywhere compared to the Chinese case. A possible start is to make Russian airspace bans uniform – either ban none, or ban all.

    The ban-all solution does come with a catch: there are certain markets like US west coast-south India and US east coast-Pearl river delta (HKG/CAN) that effectively rests market feasibility on Russian airspace usage. I’m especially curious as to what should happen to these services should a blanket ban be pursued.

Comments are closed.