US, China agree to double weekly flights between countries

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. and China will approve twice the number of passenger flights currently permitted for air carriers to fly between the two countries, the Biden administration said on Friday, in a rare sign of cooperation between the world’s largest two economies.

The U.S. Transportation Department (USDOT) said it would will increase the number of Chinese passenger flights allowed to fly to the U.S. to 18 weekly round-trips on Sept. 1 and increase that to 24 per week starting Oct. 29 , up from the current 12.

It said the Chinese government will agree to the same increase for American carriers, confirming a decision reported earlier by Reuters.

The agreement between Beijing and Washington, which have sparred on many fronts, comes after China on Thursday lifted pandemic-era restrictions on group tours for more countries, including key markets such as the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Australia.

USDOT said the first tranche of flights was approved to start Sept. 1 “to meet an anticipated increase in demand around the start of the academic year.”

Sources said U.S. airlines are not expected to immediately take advantage of all 18 weekly flights.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington referred questions about specifics to authorities in China, but said “direct flights are essential for increasing mutual visits between Chinese and American peoples. We hope that the restoration of more flights will do good to the flow of people and trade between the two countries.”

After Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s June trip to the China, consistent engagement by USDOT and the State Department with Chinese officials “made this important step forward possible,” USDOT added.

“Our overriding goal is an improved environment wherein the carriers of both parties are able to exercise fully their bilateral rights to maintain a competitive balance and fair and equal opportunity among U.S. and Chinese air carriers,” USDOT said in its approval order on Friday.

Air China said in a filing with USDOT on Thursday that it was seeking permission to add a new weekly flight between Beijing and Los Angeles.

China Eastern, Xiamen Airlines and China Southern also fly scheduled service to the U.S., while United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Airlines currently operate passenger flights to China.

United said on Friday it will expand flights between the two countries under the agreement, resuming flights to Beijing and reintroducing its daily service to Shanghai.

Airlines for America, an industry trade group, said it “supports the gradual reopening of U.S.-China air services commiserate with increases in passenger demand over time. Today’s modified Order ensures fair and equal opportunity for U.S. airlines to compete in the marketplace.”

The 24 weekly flights are still a fraction of the more than 150 round-trip flights allowed by each side before restrictions were imposed in early 2020 due to the COVID-pandemic.

On May 3, USDOT said it would allow Chinese airlines to increase U.S. passenger services to 12 weekly round-trips, equal to the number of flights Beijing has permitted for American carriers. Previously, only eight weekly flights by Chinese carriers were allowed.

U.S. carriers have noted that they cannot fly over Russian airspace to China, which makes some routes much longer. Reuters reported in June Chinese airlines were avoiding flying over Russian airspace in newly approved flights to and from the U.S. but still using Russian airspace for other flights.

(Reporting by David ShepardsonEditing by Marguerita Choy)

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