An airplane takes off at the Daxing International Airport in Beijing, Sept 25, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]
With the COVID-19 epidemic gradually easing in China, the country's top aviation regulator announced on Thursday an increase in international flights, a move that experts said will facilitate passenger flows and help Chinese stranded abroad to come home.
While international flight restrictions imposed on March 29 remain in effect, overseas airlines that currently cannot operate flights to China will be permitted once-per-week flights into one of 37 cities of their choosing starting on Monday, according to a statement issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
The policy adjustment is expected to add 50 international flights in and out of China every week, and the average number of daily inbound passengers would rise from the existing 3,000 to about 4,700, according to the administration.
To reduce risks of imported novel coronavirus infections, the administration ordered in late March that carriers could fly no more than the number of international flights they were operating between March 16 and 22, and said domestic carriers could fly just one flight a week on one route to any country, while foreign airlines could operate just one flight a week to China.
However, the 11 domestic airlines and 95 overseas airlines that had suspended international passenger flights to and from China before mid-March have not been able to operate any flights over the past few months.
During the period, 19 domestic airlines and 28 overseas airlines have been allowed to operate 134 flights to and from China every week, but only about 75 percent of the planned flights actually took place, the administration said.
The administration's statement said that the loosening of restrictions is to "restore in an orderly way some international flights, and address the urgent need of Chinese students and overseas Chinese to get back to China".
US airline ban opposed
The policy adjustment also came after the US Department of Transportation's announcement on Wednesday that the scheduled passenger operations of all Chinese air carriers to and from the United States would be suspended starting June 16, or possibly sooner, at the president's discretion.
In response to the move, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a news briefing on Thursday afternoon that China regrets the decision made by the US, and the Civil Aviation Administration of China has lodged stern representations with US transportation officials over this issue.
"The administration has been staying in close communication with the US Department of Transportation on flight arrangements between the two countries with some progress achieved," he said. "China has also adjusted relevant policies, and we hope the US side will not create barriers to solving the problem."
The US blamed Chinese aviation authorities for having failed to permit US air carriers to fully exercise their bilateral rights with respect to the provision of scheduled passenger services between the two countries.
Yet, in late January, the White House had barred most foreign citizens from entering the US from China. Three US carriers operating scheduled US-China passenger flights－American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines－began suspending their flights in early February.
As US passenger airlines had stopped all flights linked to China before the restrictions imposed by the Civil Aviation Administration of China in late March, they were unable to resume flights to China.
China's aviation administration submitted a letter to the US Department of Transportation on May 25, reiterating that its provisions "equally apply to all domestic and foreign carriers, being fair, equal and transparent" and said it does not "wish to be obliged to respond by taking countermeasures on US carriers".
The suspension comes at a difficult time for travelers, who already face a shortage of tickets and high prices for flights between the two countries. In recent days, protests, some of which have turned violent, have swept across the US over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. As a result, many overseas Chinese are concerned about their safety and are weighing their options on returning to China.
Currently, there are four weekly scheduled flights between the US and China, all flown by four Chinese airlines: Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Xiamen Airlines.
The news has drawn the attention of many in the overseas Chinese community, especially among Chinese students studying in the US.
Cecilia, a student at the University of California, San Diego, who didn't give her surname, said the news didn't come as a surprise because the pandemic has caused so many changes.
"I think this policy is still likely to change, because it is certainly not a long-term plan," she said. "It all depends on how China and the US negotiate after that. So let's wait and see."
Mechanism to guard safety
The Civil Aviation Administration of China, along with multiple departments including the National Health Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will introduce a "reward" and "circuit breaker" mechanism for airlines based on passenger nucleic acid test results upon arrival in order to contain the number of imported cases of COVID-19.
As an incentive, carriers will be allowed to increase the number of international flights to two per week on one route if the number of passengers who have a positive nucleic acid test on their flights stands at zero for three consecutive weeks, according to the administration.
The airline must suspend the operation of the route for one week if the number of passengers who test positive for the coronavirus reaches five. If the number exceeds 10, the airline will suspend the flights for four weeks, it said.
Qi Qi, an associate professor at Guangzhou Civil Aviation College, said that the mechanism will be of great help to spur airlines to step up their epidemic prevention and control measures, while still responding to the reasonable demands of foreign airlines to resume passenger flights to and from China.
It also fits in with China's regular epidemic prevention and control measures and fully advances work resumption requirements, he said, adding that if the virus remains under control, the international flights could be increased, offering a clear expectation to the airlines, passengers and foreign governments.