U.S. airlines and unions call for pause on China flights over unfair advantage concerns

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Amidst the backdrop of geopolitical tensions and commercial concerns, major U.S. airlines and aviation unions have voiced their reservations about the surge in flights between China and the United States. In a joint effort, they called upon the Biden administration to hit the brakes on approving additional flights, citing what they perceive as unfair advantages granted to Chinese carriers.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision in February to allow Chinese airlines to increase their weekly round-trip flights to 50 by the end of March didn’t sit well with U.S. carriers and their affiliates. While U.S. carriers also gained the green light for the same number of flights, they haven’t utilized their full quota.

Airlines for America, representing major players like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines, alongside prominent aviation unions, highlighted a key discrepancy: Chinese airlines benefit from traversing Russian airspace, a privilege that U.S. carriers relinquished amidst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Expressed in a letter addressed to Secretaries Blinken and Buttigieg, the coalition emphasized the need for a pause in additional flights until a level playing field is established. They underscored concerns about unfair competition resulting from what they perceive as discriminatory policies by the Chinese government.

Despite the recent thaw in relations between the U.S. and China regarding aviation cooperation, the rapid escalation in flight approvals has stirred unease among U.S. airlines. They fear the Biden administration may greenlight further increases, potentially doubling the current permitted flights to 100 per week for Chinese carriers.

Adding to the chorus of apprehension, Representative Mike Gallagher and his counterpart Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi urged caution in a separate missive. They emphasized the necessity for China to honor existing bilateral agreements and for passenger demand to rebound before additional flight approvals are granted.

The lawmakers echoed concerns over the competitive disadvantage faced by U.S. carriers due to limitations on Russian airspace and urged a reciprocal approach to flight permissions between the two nations. They emphasized the imperative of not compromising passenger safety by allowing flights through potentially risky airspace routes.

Before the pandemic-induced restrictions, both Chinese and U.S. carriers operated over 150 weekly round-trip flights between the two countries. However, limitations imposed in early 2020 significantly curtailed this traffic, with only 12 weekly round trips permitted for each side until August 2023.

Since then, incremental increases have been approved, culminating in 35 weekly round trips for Chinese carriers by November. Notably, reports surfaced last June indicating that newly approved Chinese flights were circumventing Russian airspace, giving them a logistical advantage over U.S. counterparts.

In essence, while aviation connections between China and the United States have offered a glimmer of cooperation amidst broader tensions, concerns persist among U.S. airlines and policymakers regarding the fairness and safety of the current flight arrangements. Achieving equilibrium in this realm remains a pressing objective as both nations navigate their complex relationship in the skies.

(Source: Associated Press | CNN | Bloomberg)

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