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
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.
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.
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.