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U.S. blocks dozens of flights by Chinese airlines in response to virus policy

The move comes as China has been suspending flights by American carriers after alleging in-bound passengers had later tested positive for the coronavirus

An aircraft operated by Air China at Hong Kong International Airport on Jan. 6. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg News)
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The U.S. Transportation Department issued an order Friday blocking 44 passenger flights by Chinese airlines after the Chinese government took the same step against American carriers as part of its strict coronavirus control policies.

The restrictions begin Jan. 30 and run until March 29. They affect flights between Los Angeles and New York and five Chinese cities.

Since the early days of the pandemic, the Chinese government has imposed a policy known as the “circuit breaker” that imposes limits on inbound flights by airlines if their passengers subsequently test positive for the coronavirus. The U.S. government argues that the policy is an unfair restriction on aviation that violates a long-standing agreement between the two countries.

China-bound passengers are required to submit evidence of negative coronavirus test results and to undergo other screening. The Transportation Department said that the three U.S. carriers operating to China have complied and that the circuit breaker penalizes them for “circumstances wholly outside of the carriers’ control.”

“Our overriding goal is not the perpetuation of this situation, but rather an improved environment wherein the carriers of both parties will be able to exercise fully their bilateral rights,” the Transportation Department wrote in the order. “Only then will the Department’s actions to maintain a competitive balance and fair and equal opportunity among U.S. and Chinese air carriers in the scheduled passenger service marketplace no longer be necessary.”

Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said the global surge in virus
cases had led to an increase in cases being brought into China on international flights. The circuit breaker was designed to limit such cases, he said.

“The policy has been applied equally to Chinese and foreign airlines in a fair, open and transparent way,” he said. “It is very unreasonable for the U.S. to suspend Chinese airlines’ flights on this ground. We urge the U.S. side to stop disrupting and restricting the normal passenger flights operated by Chinese airlines.”

The Trump administration moved to ban flights by Chinese airlines early in the pandemic

The dispute over U.S.-China aviation during the pandemic has been rumbling since late spring of 2020, when the Trump administration moved to block flights from China. The two countries eventually agreed to allow limited schedules.

In August, the Chinese government imposed capacity limits on United Airlines, an alternative sanction under the circuit breaker. The United States responded, targeting Chinese airlines.

At the time, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended the circuit breaker as an important tool to limit the spread of the virus and called the American response “unjustified.”

“Going forward, China will continue to implement all epidemic prevention and control measures, including circuit breakers, to prevent as much as possible the spread of the epidemic,” the spokeswoman said.

The new U.S. order goes further, banning passengers altogether. The four Chinese carriers targeted in the order will be permitted to continue operating flights from the United States to China if they only carry cargo. They still are allowed to carry passengers from China to the United States.

Airlines that operate a China-bound flight that contains between five and nine passengers who subsequently test positive for the coronavirus are supposed to have two options: suspend that flight for two weeks or limit that flight’s capacity to 40 percent for four weeks. The Chinese government says it applies the rules in the same way to domestic and international airlines.

But the Transportation Department says in the case of the most recent incidents, the U.S. carriers were not given the choice and were told they must cancel the flights, while being denied advance warning.

“U. S. carriers, who are following all relevant Chinese regulations with respect to pre-departure and in-flight protocols, should not be penalized if passengers, post-arrival, later test positive for COVID-19,” the department wrote in Friday’s order.

Delta Air Lines, which has had 14 flights suspended by China in recent weeks, said, “We appreciate continued U.S. government efforts to ensure fairness and access to China.”