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New Wave of U.S.-China Routes: What’s Next?

Service in the U.S.-China market is still well below pre-pandemic levels.

A Hainan Airlines A330-300 in Berlin (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Fabian Behr)

On February 26, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) released a statement indicating that U.S.-China air service can be increased from the current 70 flights per week to a combined 100 flights per week. Chinese and U.S. carriers will share the frequencies. Such an increase was lower than the market expectation. By now, all Chinese incremental frequencies have been occupied, and the U.S. side is still pending an update.

Currently, the service level between China and the U.S. is less than 20% of pre-pandemic times. The supply of seats is not sufficient to meet all travelers’ demands; hence, ticket prices are still high, and the transfer market is booming. This round of frequency increases may alleviate the situation; however, the improvement is expected to be marginal.

What’s Interesting?

In Xiamen Airlines’ submission, it will open two weekly services, MF850, between Fuzhou, China, and New York-JFK. Before the pandemic, the carrier operated this route with three weekly services. Now, however, on the return trip, the flight will fly through Europe and Central Asia and stop at Urumqi, China, to refuel.

The route design is due to the unavailability of Russian airspace and the need to leverage the strong west wind during the Northern Hampshire summer. Through this, the aircraft operating the flight will circle the planet. The flight distance and time will make the flight the longest international flight in China so far.

The Big Three of China

Before the pandemic, Air China was the largest carrier on U.S.-China routes, offering as many as 69 flights per week. Destinations included New York (both JFK and EWR), Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Houston. Currently, Air China services four out of the five cities it served before the pandemic, but at a much lower frequency. As its Houston station is now permanently closed, the Houston-Beijing route is not expected to be resumed soon.

China Southern and China Eastern have similar stories to Air China. Both carriers increased existing services in this round of flight resumption. As Russian airspace is not available, overall flights are still highly concentrated on the East Coast of the United States.

An Air China 777-300ER in Los Angeles (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Other Carriers

Xiamen Airlines, Sichuan Airlines, and Hainan Airlines also have the opportunity to increase their U.S. services in this round. Xiamen Airlines went for a creative way to resume its Fuzhou-New York JFK services. Sichuan Airlines increased its existing service between Chengdu, China, and Los Angeles. Hainan Airlines added direct services between Beijing and Seattle, which is the nearest city to China in the mainland United States. Previously, Hainan Airlines was flying the Boston-Beijing flight with Seattle being the technical stop.

What About the U.S. Side?

United has submitted its plan to resume the Los Angeles-Shanghai flight with four weekly flights in August and increase to daily service by October. Before the pandemic, the Los Angeles-Shanghai route was the biggest U.S.-China route, with five daily flights operated by China Eastern and all three big U.S. carriers: American, United, and Delta.

As for Delta and American, Seattle may be the next hotspot for U.S.-China routes after Los Angeles given its proximity to China, and Delta has a strong presence there. United has firmly rejected the possibility of resuming flights between Newark and China in the upcoming quarters due to the prolonged flight distance to fly outside Russian airspace, making those routes unprofitable.

Overall, the geopolitical aspects still heavily impact U.S. and China air service. In the foreseeable future, the possibility of U.S.-China flights fully recovering to the pre-pandemic level is remote.

Lei Yan

Author

  • Lei Yan

    Lei is from Inner Mongolia, China, and now lives in Guangzhou. He grew up in an aviation family, where his passion began. During his time at Penn State University, he studied Industrial Engineering specializing in operations research, and he graduated with an honor’s thesis on airport gate assignment optimization. Now, he is a Purchasing Manager with Procter & Gamble. In his free time, he enjoys flying, reading, and wandering around the city.

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