US airlines are requesting an extension of airport slot waivers for certain long-haul flights that have been in place since Covid-19 disrupted international travel in March 2020.
Airlines for America (A4A), a lobby group representing 10 major US airlines and Air Canada, said in a letter to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) on 17 January that “international flight operations and passenger demand” to certain markets in Japan and China “remain severely depressed”.
Therefore, airlines that operated numerous weekly flights to the region prior to the global pandemic will not reinstate those flights yet, meaning they will continue not to use assigned slots at slot-restricted airports across the country.
“International air travel to China remains severely depressed due to cumbersome, uncertain and constantly evolving travel requirements and entry barriers,” the letter reads. These restrictions “suppress demand and prevent our members from being able to operate their limited-entry frequencies”.
A similar situation exists in Japan, especially on flights to Tokyo’s Haneda International airport.
“While Japan is starting to reopen to international travel and, as a result, the US-Tokyo demand environment is improving, the pace of the rebound has been sluggish and forward-looking demand remains choppy,” the letter adds.
The FAA has granted slot-waiver relief to carriers operating from several slot-restricted airports since the rapidly-spreading coronavirus nearly shut down international aviation in March 2020. That means that airlines were able to keep their allocated slots at capacity-constrained destinations like New York’s John F Kennedy International airport, even if they did not fulfil rules that normally require them to use 80% of the slots to avoid losing them. The order has been extended several times.
The latest extension is scheduled to expire at the end of the winter travel season, on 26 March. A4A is now requesting the waiver continue through the summer travel season, which ends on 29 October.
“Our members do not foresee significant and certain international passenger growth in either China or Japan before expiration of the Waiver Order on March 26, 2023 leading into the summer season,” A4A writes. Covid-19, the group maintains, “continues to have a significant impact on airline operations and air travel”.
China lifted all coronavirus-related travel restrictions on 8 January after almost three years. That opening followed a broader North Asia reopening in late 2022, which saw neighbouring North Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan drop restrictions.
Almost immediately, Chinese carriers announced they would add flights to North America to take advantage of what they expect will be pent-up demand for overseas travel. On 4 January, Air China and Hainan Airlines submitted new schedules to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) with their expanded route intentions.
But US airlines have held back on restoring their networks to the Chinese mainland. Last week, Delta Air Lines’ chief executive Ed Bastian said the carrier will “not get ahead of ourselves” on returning capacity to China. Prior to the pandemic, the airline operated flights to China from Atlanta, Detroit, Seattle and Los Angeles, according to Cirium data.
United Airlines, meantime, currently operates four-times-weekly flights between San Francisco and Shanghai, with a stopover in Seoul. It too has not announced any expansion to its network to China. Prior to the pandemic, United served Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu with numerous weekly connections from its hubs at San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Chicago and Newark.