The Most Populous Country in the World All But Disappears From American Skies

Air China, China Southern, Government Regulation

Back in 2019, China was a big and growing market for air travel to and from the US. Today, it barely exists at all. The country’s COVID policy and political tensions with the US have combined to keep a long-term stranglehold on the market, and it’s one with no end in sight.

Let’s start by looking back on 2019. First, I want to note that I’m including Hong Kong in here, because as the pro-Chinese government continues to sink its tentacles into Hong Kong, the former British colony behaves more and more like mainland China every day. Yes, it’s a different bilateral agreement that covers air service between the US and Hong Kong compared to China, but it remains one of the cities with the steepest drop in service during the pandemic. I also included flying from all 50 US states, but I excluded Guam and Saipan since that’s a completely different market anyway.

With that out of the way, let’s dive right into 2019 using February as a sample month.

Seats and Routes Between the US and China/Hong Kong – February 2019

Black boxes show number of routes by airline between the US and China while columns show number of seats total/Data via Cirium

I think it’s safe to call this a robust level of service. There were two airlines from Hong Kong, three US-based carriers, and 6 Chinese carriers flying between the US and China/Hong Kong. There was also one daily fifth freedom flight from Singapore between San Francisco and Singapore.

Cathay had the most seats, connecting 7 US cities into Hong Kong, and Hainan had the most destinations at 13. But it was United with 12 routes and the second-most seats that was the most complete player. US carriers only served the big three cities of Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai… plus United’s lone service to Chengdu. But those Chinese carriers? They served the US from 17 different cities in China. Here’s a map.

Map of US – China/Hong Kong service, February 2019 via Cirium

I put a different color for each airline, but you’ll never be able to tell them apart, so I didn’t even bother with a legend. This is really just an illustration of the incredible amount of service that existed in 2019.

It’s shocking that some of these cities had flights to the US, but money was easy and local governments were happy to fund a flight for pride-related reasons. (Yes, the Chinese airlines receive significant subsidies, which always made the case against Middle East carriers feel flimsier. But I digress.)

Airlines like Hainan were fueled by companies looking for a place to put money, and they were already teetering before COVID… but then COVID arrived.

We all know that COVID started in China, and we also all probably know that China has had one of the most draconian responses to the disease. It does not hesitate to shut down cities at the drop of a hat to try to keep COVID at bay.

Because of that, there have been severely strict protocols in place that have impacted flights. Early on, the Chinese stopped all flights from coming in, but they eventually loosened up a bit. Flights remain severely restricted in number to this day, and they are capacity-limited as well. The US, of course, banned all Chinese citizens from coming to the US early in the pandemic, something that wasn’t lifted until last November when the global testing requirement went into place.

Strict rules are problematic, but what’s even worse is the constant pace of change in what is and is not allowed. Strict quarantine rules caused all US airlines to stop nonstop service into China to avoid having crews lay over. American, Delta, and United now only service Shanghai with less-than-daily service that goes via Incheon. There, they can have a crew fly a roundtrip into Shanghai and never have to stay in the country. But even that has insulated the airlines from China’s game of whack-a-mole with the virus.

Case-in-point… China implemented a recent change to cleaning protocols that according to Delta would have required an unworkable amount of extended ground time for the aircraft. It happened so quickly that Delta had to turn an airplane around midflight to avoid running into the rules.

Hong Kong has been just as messy, implementing the same types of rules. That has been disastrous for Cathay Pacific which continues to try to find a way to run its operation, but it really can’t. It has lost crews and had to cancel significant service. Even worse, Hong Kong recently again banned transit passengers. Cathay is just reeling under the burden.

As if changing rules aren’t challenging enough, the Chinese and Hong Kong governments have also built in uncertainty with rules that require airlines to cancel a certain number of flights if they bring someone into the country who tests positive. With the Olympics coming shortly, the Chinese have stepped up enforcement and have canceled a slew of flights on US airlines. Whether a flight will go on any given day is simply unclear. It’s just a bad environment for any airline.

Consequently, the route map between the US and China during February 2022 is completely unrecognizable.

Map of US – China/Hong Kong service, February 2022 via Cirium

Cathay Pacific remains a shell of its former self with 3 daily flights to both LA and San Francisco. China Southern has only 2 flights all month to LA from Guangzhou while Xiamen has only 2 weekly to LA from Xiamen. China Eastern has 1 daily flight from JFK to Shanghai, and that’s it… oh, except for those occasional flights on US carriers via Incheon to Shanghai.

This isn’t a short term thing, and that is what’s most telling. Just take a look at the future plans for these airlines as of now, according to Cirium data.

  • Air China resumes US flying in Mar, but it only has LAX flights through the end of schedule with 1x weekly to Beijing and another 1x weekly to Shenzhen.
  • American hopes to bring back DFW – Shanghai 2x weekly starting in Apr instead of running through Incheon, but that’s all it will fly through the full summer schedule which ends in late October.
  • Cathay Pacific has the 3x daily to both LA and SFO as mentioned. It hopes to resume Boston and Chicago with 1x weekly each along with JFK at 4x weekly in Mar, but it has been hopeful about that for awhile and just keeps cutting as it goes. That plan goes through the end of schedule with those low frequencies.
  • China Eastern has only 1x daily JFK – Shanghai through the end of schedule.
  • China Southern has only 2x weekly LA – Guangzhou through the end of schedule.
  • Delta has canceled all US – China flying through the summer schedule, only serving Shanghai via Incheon.
  • Hainan has no US flights filed.
  • Hong Kong Airlines has no US flights filed.
  • Sichuan has no US flights filed.
  • Singapore has no flights from SFO – Hong Kong through the summer schedule.
  • United has a placeholder schedule in place from the end of Mar when the summer season starts. It will cut further, but plans aren’t known publicly yet. As of now, it will only serve Shanghai via Incheon through the winter schedule.
  • Xiamen has only 2x weekly LAX – Xiamen scheduled through the summer schedule. It then hopes to resume 3x weekly from LAX to Qingdao as well.

Having reduced schedules so far out shows just how bearish the airlines are in this market. Of course, if there is a miracle and restrictions loosen, then airlines can add back service, but nobody is expecting it. As other countries begin to reopen, service is being restored. But for China, that day is not coming any time soon.

44 comments on “The Most Populous Country in the World All But Disappears From American Skies

  1. Is the current lack of Beijing a case of Shanghai being a ‘business’ centre and Beijing being a “government” centre?

    I suppose Guangzhou and Xiamen have more business interest between USA/China?

    1. I’d say it’s more a case of avoiding importing any Covid to the capital whatever the cost. Beijing overall has very very few international flights now for this reason. It’s been said that the government wants to centralize more international arrivals to Guangzhou and has build dedicated quarantine facilities there and in other Guangdong cities for this reason.

    2. James – Yes, it’s all about where US-based companies need to go, and that’s Shanghai over anywhere else. So with the few slots they have, they’ll do Shanghai.

      1. I disagree, but based only on anecdotal evidence:
        -half of the passengers on UA857 that I took in October were going to places other than Shanghai
        -while I live in Shanghai myself, our business in Beijing volume in Beijing is roughly the same
        -as others have noted, Beijing has exceptionally strict quarantine rules, which often change with minimal notice
        -Shanghai is no walk in the park either but is generally regarded as the most lenient gateway in this respect

    3. I would like to mention that the numbers being used February 2019 was before anyone heard of covid znd trump was trying to build resorts in China. I an very sure that a graph from july 2021 would more strongly fortify your argument. Enjoyed the artical very much

      1. Disagree. The policies (and schedules, for the most part) in place today are the same as they were in July 2021. The only difference is that more flights have been put in the penalty box recently because Omicron is more contagious than past variants.

  2. How much do the rules vary by airport (yet more things to keep track of)?

    The Delta flight turning around because of the new cleaning rules appears to be only Shanghai Pudong rather than a China-wide measure so it might be avoidable by flying to somewhere else in China, although they still might not want to anyway.

    1. Jason H – I honestly have no idea how much they vary by airport, but it would be unsurprising to see everyone doing something different depending upon COVID in that city.

  3. Just curious…any thoughts on why Delta even flies to Shanghai? With the JV, feels like it would be easier to time a tight connection with KE and send passengers on that way.

    1. Delta does not have a joint venture involving China and neither does any other US airline because China does not have Open Skies w/ the US- a prerequisite for joint ventures.

      Korean was one of the largest foreign airlines to China and they have a chance of helping Delta have a much larger footprint but it won’t be a joint venture basis.

      Shanghai is one of the world’s major business centers; the real question is how it will end up after covid – if covid ever ends for China. Delta will be in China as long as it is possible to be there. The key takeaway is that United and Delta were the same size based on these covid restrictions before this latest dustup and both are well short of their pre-covid frequencies. It will take alot of readded frequencies before United is back to its previous size.

      All 3 US airlines have Chinese partners which mean nothing right now.

      1. Tim, While the last sentence of your comment is quite correct, United and Delta’s relative size in China in the past has no bearing on the future. If I remember correctly, many in the industry felt there was a lot of excess capacity between the U.S. and China before the pandemic. Maybe this situation will prompt all of the carriers to better match capacity to demand going forward. Then again …

        It’ll be interesting to see how all of this shakes out.

        1. The reason there was so much capacity between China and the US is because China allowed its citizens to travel the world – but it ended up subsidizing its own airlines in order to make many of those flights work. The level of demand that existed pre-pandemic likely will not return for a very long time if ever. It is very sad to see but aviation is often at the pointed end of a lot of things -in this case international politics. Air travel exists when countries value the free movement of people but that is clearly no longer a priority for China. I have a feeling that when/if CF revisits this topic 3 years from now, there won’t be as many routes operated by US airlines to China as there were pre-covid.

          As for the level of flying between DL and UA to China, it is clear that the DOT did not proportionately grant DL and UA covid-era frequencies based on their pre-covid levels of demand. DL and UA each asked for more flights than the DOT could grant and so they gave both the same number of flights with AA – which had just cancelled its LAX-PEK and -PVG flights – a fewer number of covid-era frequencies. I would strongly bet that both DL and UA will fight to operate everything they can and covid will end up as the great reset that put DL and UA on the same level of flights from 3+ hubs with AA taking a smaller role with at best flights from 2 US hubs.

          btw, I just saw Delta’s A330-900 in the Team USA livery. It looks very sharp. Presumably it will be allowed to operate into/out of China carrying Team USA.

          1. “The reason there was so much capacity between China and the US is because China allowed its citizens to travel the world – but it ended up subsidizing its own airlines in order to make many of those flights work. The level of demand that existed pre-pandemic likely will not return for a very long time if ever. It is very sad to see but aviation is often at the pointed end of a lot of things -in this case international politics. Air travel exists when countries value the free movement of people but that is clearly no longer a priority for China.”

            Tim,

            You would be partly correct. The CCP has imposed new social restrictions on the populous including less freedom of movement, but that is offset by increases on international deal making such as building railways in African nations. A question then arises, what is Beijing seeking? I think the answer is two fold – they want rare earth minerals such as lithium & other metals & They are willing to make such deals to also expand their sphere of influence.

          2. Tim, I saw a picture of the Team USA livery on Airliners.net. You’re right. It’s really sharp. I hope it can operate into China during the games. I tend to agree that travel to China will look quite different 3 years from now than it did in 2019. I also have more than a sneaking suspicion that you’re right about American’s relative size to northern Asia. It’ll probably rely more on its partners than United and Delta, and will be relatively happy with that state of affairs. There are no laws that state that a business has to be everything to everyone, or that every legacy airline has to have exactly the same business model. United and Delta can duke it out to China and northern Asia. American and United can do the same to Oceania and the South Pacific. And American and Delta can go toe to toe in deep South America. I can also see the end of open skies between the U.S. and Korea as a condition of the Korean Air/Asiana merger, but Delta’s close ties to Korean will give it a dominant position there. And I can see American and United being okay with that arrangement, as both have Japanese partners. Just some random speculation on my part.

        2. The number of flights also had no direct bearing on profitability either. Many of the routes by Chinese airlines, less so by US ones, flew from Chinese airports or cities that offered large subsidies to attract service to the US.

  4. How many of these flights can realisticly be operated once the pandemic relents? Between current WFH sentiment in the US & economic as well as current geopolitics, there’s just little demand for flights to China.

    Thinking about it for a moment, one only need to look at the US & their unwillingness to send teams to the Olympics this year as well as their support of Taiwan as illustrations of the tensions between the two countries..

    1. Slight correction—the US will send teams (at least as of now). However, they won’t send an official delegation (gov’t) for the opening/closing ceremonies, etc.

    2. Once restrictions are minimal to none, the VFR market will always be quite large, even if China becomes less popular or attractive as a business travel destination.

  5. This is just my personal opinion, but from what trends I can see, it appears that some person (or persons) on very high levels in the government of People’s Republic of China – and also the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for that matter – want to punish Cathay Pacific to the point of strangulation.

        1. Bill….. that’s a possibility. Maybe Cathay Pacific competes with an airline where that has very politically connected shareholders & investors.

      1. There are simply too many coincidences here………. This began to get my attention when flight crews (mainly cabin crew) were denied admittance to PRC due to them voicing negative reactions on the politics there.
        Things seemed to go downhill after that…… flights began to be reduced, enforcement actions against the airline increased, etc.
        These actions happen when a company (or their executives for that matter) have enemies that are high level bureaucrats and politicians. China & HKG is not alone in this; in the US, George Bush among others punished his political enemies, too.

  6. Cranky:

    I feel sorry for all the American athletes competing in the Olympics this year.

    It appears that they are getting penalized.

    In your reduced map (Feb 2022), I did not see any direct flights from the states to Bejing (PEK). I also searched for flights on United’s website and could not even find connections on Star Alliance flights to Bejing.

    If I were an American athlete going to the games, what are some possible routes that Cranky Concierge could plan for me and how much more time would it take along with the added inconvenience?

    1. I’d imagine that there would be special charter flights arranged to fly directly to Beijing. Can’t really see how the planned Olympic bubble would work otherwise.

    2. Keith – I’m sure there are charters for the athletes, but otherwise, the easiest way may very well be the long way around via Europe. There are some options via Haneda or possibly through Hong Kong.

  7. Cranky – if you’re mentioning US visa restrictions on Chinese passport holders to talk about why demand is down, it would probably be good to mention Chinese visa restrictions on foreign nationals. It is still near impossible to take a business trip to China (not just the effective 3 week quarantines, but getting visas) and only recently have their been moved to allow non working spouses and family members of employed foreign work permit holders back.

  8. Travel to and from China for any reason will never be the same again and will most likely will remain that way for years long after pandemic is declared over. The impossible zero COVID policies of HK and China for the last two years with no end in sight still I am sure will leave behind alot of abandoned hotels and international airports littering the Chinese landscape alongside bankrupt and dead airlines.

  9. Their covid policies WILL fail. Unless they want to stay permanently isolated from the world. The science is very clear. We are all getting it, unless you hide away from everyone.

  10. Cathay Pacific is definitely not operating 3x daily to the US in Feb 2022; it is 4 flights *total* for the entire month: https://www.cathaypacific.com/cx/en_US/flying-with-us/cathaycare/where-we-fly-now/dec-where-we-fly-now.html

    Chinese carriers (and this does not include CX, which is a Hong Kong carrier) fly to more secondary cities also because the PRC has a rule for it’s airlines: one airline per route (with some exceptions I believe). So Chinese airlines will operate secondary routes to claim it.

    Re: lack of flights to Beijing – at least earlier in COVID, China typically did not allow intl arrivals into Beijing. You’d have to go to another city (mostly Tianjin), complete testing there, before proceeding to Beijing. Easier to just fly to Shanghai instead.

    1. I’m pretty sure the previous rule was one Chinese airline and one US-based airline per airport pair, which sort of worked because airlines would just fly from their hubs in their home country and leave other hubs to other airlines. I think it actually hurt Chinese airlines more because smaller carriers like Hainan would find that all the best routes from PEK were taken by Air China since both of them had a hub there

      Hong Kong didn’t fall under that rule so multiple airlines were allowed and more than two did fly routes like HKG-LAX and SFO.

  11. Lots of flights still from China to Vancouver BC Canada then they just connect to the USA. Would of liked to see those stats mentioned.

    1. It’s fine to connect in third countries on the way out of China, but if you want to come here and your country has direct flights, you need to take one of them.

  12. Just to be crystal clear –

    China DOES NOT have a true zero-covid policy.

    What they do have, is a zero-covid-allowed-to-be-reported policy, cuz they’re so afraid any tiny bit of numbers up to W.H.O. is gonna shatter the fragile glass heart of that Wuhanizer , Mr Xi Jinping

    China thinks they’re so superior, being the alpha and the omega

    Me thinks more like them being the delta and the omicron

    1. Lol keep believing this. You are exactly the reason why America is a joke to the rest of the world lately. The country has 1.3 B people. All cases are reported and quarantines were out in place right away so nobody needs to wear a mask at all times and the economy remains healthy. It’s just funny to see you can your brainwashed point of view doesn’t even pass basic science level.. but hey that’s US education right there for middle class. keep it up dude. Biden and Trump both need more people like you. Murica!

    2. With all due respect, you are off your rocker. Reporting Covid is taken very seriously here, and the policy really is ZERO. Whenever there is a single case, the entire surrounding neighborhood gets cordoned off for at least 7 days. And, there is a contact tracing layer on top of that.

  13. Let China and Russia disappear! They want to take over the world with their oppression politics. They already try to control our young children with harmful social media. Americans need to start creating goods and jobs HERE, stop being baby- like dependent on countries trying to enslave many around the globe, and as much as possible.

  14. Someone mentioned Olympic flights upthread. Charters are strongly encouraged. In the case of the US, Delta is planning on operating the lion’s share.

  15. If you want to feel China, you can fly to Taiwan. No visa required but great hospitality, convenient, clean and safe every where in Taiwan.
    I visited for my vacation every year before the pandemic.
    You can hear announcement in English on high speed trains and metro subways.
    I even visited doctor’s clinic for flu. Very affordable including medicine. Many things were very convenient in Taiwan.

    Taiwan could be your next destination~

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier