The three largest US airlines are pushing back until at least late October the resumption of many flights to China that they cut early during the Covid-19 pandemic.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines received authority from the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to delay by another 90 days the resumption of nearly 100 weekly flights to China, according to regulatory documents released on 5 March.

The US carriers hold DOT-issued approvals to fly specific routes to China, doing so under requirements laid out in the USA’s air transport treaty with China. The DOT can take back those approvals if carriers fail to operate the flights.


Source: United Airlines

United Airlines now flies to Shanghai and Beijing from San Francisco

Throughout the pandemic, the agency issued waivers in 90-day chunks permitting the US carriers to keep the flights grounded without the risk of losing the flight permissions. The DOT issued fresh waivers, which run through 26 October, in February.

The US airlines had urged the DOT to act, saying demand for flights to China remains depressed.

“Due to ongoing aero-political challenges, additional frequencies are unlikely to be able to be fully authorised for use in the upcoming summer season,” Delta said in a February request to the DOT. “Given the challenges inherent in the restoration of service between the US and China, further extensions of dormancy waivers may be necessary in the future.”

Similarly, American told the DOT in February that “the majority of pre-pandemic frequencies remain un-operated and likely will remain so through at least the 2024 summer season, since US-China passenger demand has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels.”

The 90-day waivers apply to 14 frequencies operated by American, 32 operated by Delta and 49 operated by United.

All three carriers still fly to China, but at much-reduced levels compared with before the pandemic. Delta’s current schedule includes flights to Shanghai from both Seattle and Detroit, American flies to Shanghai from Dallas-Fort Worth and United flies to both Shanghai and Beijing from San Francisco, according to Cirium data.

Before the pandemic, those airlines operated vastly more China flights, flying there from numerous other US cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Newark and Washington-Dulles.

All airlines will carry about 181,000 seats between the USA and China in March, down 79% from 846,000 seats in March 2019, Cirium data shows.