US airlines see a resumption of flights to China as key to a swift recovery, but tensions between Beijing and Washington risk a tit-for-tat spat that could stall the industry’s recovery.

The US and China are two of the five most visited countries in the world. Furthermore, each is a top five source market for the other, meaning that ease of movement between the two countries is critical, even under normal circumstances. The airline industry is currently operating under anything but normal circumstances and authorities should be doing everything they can to smooth the road to recovery.  However, it seems that an unfolding dispute could make that road more difficult to navigate.

The US Government has been rightly praised for its swift action in helping its airlines, but retaliating to what it sees as an attempt by Beijing to block American carriers from resuming flights to China risks reversing some of that good work.

United Airlines has been particularly vocal about a resumption of flights from the US to China, with Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella telling employees: “We are working with Washington, D.C. and China to figure out when we can reinstate passenger flights. We are ready to go. We are ready to get all the necessary regulatory approvals to make that happen.” It is these very approvals that the US feels China is deliberately withholding.

The CAAC (Civil Aviation Administration of China) ordered all airlines to use their flight schedules for the week of March 16-22 week as a benchmark for how many flights they could operate to China until further notice. US airlines had “completely ceased flying passenger service to China,” according to the Department of Transportation. This has irked authorities in the US and the DOT (Department of Transportation) has introduced its own measures. It now requires Chinese airlines to file flight schedules in advance. It will then decide if these flights “may be contrary to applicable law or adversely affect the public interest.”

According to a report on CNBC, the US Department of Transport has described the situation as ‘critical’ and quotes a statement from the DOT that says it objects to: “China’s failure to let US carriers fully exercise their rights and to the denial to US carriers of their right to compete on a fair and equal basis with Chinese carriers.”

The situation is indeed critical as airlines are desperate to reboot routes that act as vital revenue streams. As China emerges from the grips of the coronavirus, it is viewed as central to the first phase of recovery. Both sides must protect the interests of their carriers and they are right to look to secure a level playing field. However, this bears all the hallmarks of the trade disputes that have characterized Sino-American relations in recent years and it is difficult to see a resolution being reached any time soon.

Unfortunately, for Chinese and US carriers a swift resolution is exactly what is needed.


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