Chinese airlines can boost US flights to 50 per week, US says

A China Eastern Airlines aircraft and Shanghai Airlines aircraft are seen in Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Chinese passenger airlines will be allowed to boost their weekly round-trip U.S. flights to 50 starting on March 31, up from the current 35, the U.S. Transportation Department said on Monday, returning the market to nearly one-third of pre-pandemic levels.

The approval "is a significant step forward in further normalization of the U.S.-China market in anticipation of the Summer 2024 traffic season," the USDOT said.

More than 150 weekly round-trip passenger flights were allowed by each side before restrictions were imposed in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but until August 2023, Chinese and U.S. carriers could each fly only 12 a week between the two countries.

The number rose on Sept. 1 to 18 weekly round-trips and then to 24 per week starting Oct. 29. The USDOT approved 35 for Chinese carriers in November.

Airlines for America, a group representing American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, which fly a combined 31 weekly flights to China, said it "supports the U.S. government's approach to slowly, gradually and reciprocally reopen the market with China. It's imperative the U.S. government maintains this approach."

The Chinese embassy in Washington said it was "glad to see the positive progress made on increasing direct passenger flights between China and the U.S." The embassy added it is working to "further facilitate cross-border travel and promote people-to-people exchange between the two countries."

Reuters reported last June that newly approved Chinese flights to the United States were not overflying Russia, which would have given them a shorter flight time and fuel advantage over U.S. rivals blocked from Russian airspace.

Other international air markets involving China have reopened far more quickly, with seat capacity between China and the United Kingdom this month exceeding pre-pandemic levels by 30%, and China-Singapore by 6%, according to aviation data provider OAG.

The USDOT said it was engaged in a productive dialogue with China's aviation regulator towards the "implementation of a roadmap to provide for a gradual, broader reopening of the U.S.-China air services market and a phased and predictable return to the capacity entitlements" specified under a U.S.-China agreement.

On a trip to China last year, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said she wanted to boost travel and tourism between the two countries.

If China returned to 2019 U.S. tourism levels, it would add $30 billion to the U.S. economy and 50,000 U.S. jobs, Raimondo said in August.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler and Jamie Freed)