Air China’s Unique Strategy For Maintaining US Flights

Filed Under: Air China

Air China is taking a different approach than other airlines to maintaining US flights in light of the Wuhan coronavirus, and the corresponding travel ban. Is their strategy kind of smart, or just downright strange, though?

Many airlines have cut flights between US & China

At this point we’ve seen many flights between mainland China and the US cut, especially as the US has added a new coronavirus travel ban.

On the most basic level, foreign nationals who have visited China in the last 14 days are no longer able to enter the United States, unless they’re the immediate family members of US citizens or permanent residents.

Understandably this has caused airlines to greatly cut back service. American, Delta, and United, are all cutting mainland China flights, and even China Eastern and Hainan Airlines have canceled many of their US flights as well.

Chinese airlines say that they’re doing this due to weak demand, while US airlines say they’re doing this due to a combination of weak demand and the safety of their crews.

Air China’s strategy for maintaining US flights

Air China doesn’t seem willing to completely give up US flights. The airline currently flies to six US destinations — Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, New York JFK, San Francisco, and Washington.

The airline has filed with the US Department of Transportation to request the right to operate a total of just seven weekly frequencies to the US, but those would include four US cities. Air China wants to fly the following for a period of 180 days, using Boeing 777-300ERs:

  • 4x weekly from Beijing to Los Angeles to San Francisco
  • 3x weekly from Beijing to New York JFK to Washington

As the airline describes it, this is intended to maintain essential air connectivity between the US and China in the most economical way.

That’s an interesting approach, but it’s important to also point out the potentially huge logistical hurdles here. There are reports of immigration in the US taking six hours in some cases for those arriving from Asia (even those not coming from China).

I would assume passengers would be screened at the first US port of entry, rather than at the final destination, in which case the scheduling seems very difficult.

It’ll be interesting to see if this permission is granted, and if so, how the route does operationally.

This is a very different strategy than China Eastern is taking, for example, as they’re just suspending select routes and frequencies.

Bottom line

Air China seems to be doing everything they can to avoid cutting US flights altogether. I have to give them credit for coming up with an innovative strategy that allows them to maintain service without operating their entire network empty, though at the same time the logistics here seem really challenging.

If Air China does amend their routes as proposed, I’ll be very curious to see what kind of delays these flights face…

What do you make of Air China’s strategy for maintaining US flights?

Given the latest information on the coronavirus situation, my thinking changed, and I ultimately canceled my flight through Beijing. For more on the rapidly-developing situation, check out these posts:

  1. Can you link to people taking several hours to enter the US from other Asian countries?

    I’m going to Japan soon and that is worrying

  2. I don’t understand how they are able to operate flights from China to the US. I assume their crews are not US citizens. Is there an exemption for airline crews? I don’t see how they would be granted entry to the US given the flight had just operated from China.

  3. So it takes several hours to clear U.S. immigration, which apparently makes it difficult for scheduling? This is situation normal for any non-immigrant U.S. arrival.

  4. Well, all of them will be US citizens so hopefully all of them have Global entry or will use Mobile Passport control to speed up immigration. It’s the health screening part that might take longer.

  5. Why don’t they just code share with United for the domestic segments (e.g., LAX-SFO, JFK-IAD)? Is the demand really that high to connect to the remaining cities with service to China?

  6. Slippery slope… US gov’t allowing foreign carriers to operate a domestic flight? Security issues are going to be a nightmare. Probably easier to have them opt for a 5th freedom access thru foreign cities (PEK-YOW-DCA bureaucrat route, PVG-YYZ-JFK biz route, CAN-YVR-LAX cargo route, or SZX-FUK-SFO brainiac route).

  7. They’re not requesting 8th freedom, so tickets won’t be sold and no cargo would be transported on the domestic leg. So probably each passenger is clearing immigration at his/her destination.
    And yes, airline crews are exempt from the travel ban.

  8. I hope they’ll use that 6 hours of time to clear immigration to clean the living hell out of those planes. Flying a plane with quarantined passengers on high capacity shuttle routes is … curious … at best.

  9. I thought only certain airports in the US were designated for health screening, and IAD isn’t one of them? How can they operate the PEK-IAD flight?

    I’m flying Air China in the fall to Asia. So far, they are allowing full refunds on tickets for travel any time in 2020. I’ll be keeping mine for now though — let’s see how this pans out.

  10. Disregard my previous comment. Thanks to HYY369 for adding clarity. @The nice Paul, I think you’re probably on to something.

  11. “There are reports of immigration in the US taking six hours in some cases for those arriving from Asia (even those not coming from China).”

    Arrived yesterday at JFK T1 from Japan and it took 5 minutes (as a foreigner).

  12. I’ll be flying soon from LA TO MNL and the thing is I have layover in Beijing. Anyone know If my flight will be cancelled to because I have china layover?

  13. Air China flight 817 PEK-IAD shows it’s due to arrive at 1:30pm at usual. I guess it’s only passenger who were in Wuhan who have to get redirected to some other US airport for health screening then?

    Also, do PEK transit pax (like ICN-PEK-IAD) get exempted from health checks?

  14. The NYC-Washington and SFO to LAX legs make absolutely no sense.

    Why can’t the traffic just connect on another airline (United)

    Also Lucky, even though China Southern and Hanian are not using their slots currently at JFK, will they be granted an exemption to the slot rules due to the CDC warning and public health crisis?

  15. @jasmine depends when. Most USA-China traffic is currently suspended they can reroute your on a partner airline via Tokyo if it’s air china to all Nippon Then you may have an issue on the return via china

  16. Maybe the passengers landing at SFO can stay on the plane and get screened at LAX? That’s the easiest way.

  17. US domestic tag on with no local travel rights has been done before. There are many examples. One is Sabena BRU-BOS-ORD.

  18. Just got back from Tokyo to LAX couple days ago. 9:45am arrival (15 mins early from scheduled time), our family of 3 including a toddler (first class tickets so we got off the plane first, but no Global Entry or anything) zipped through immigration, picked up 6 bags and in the car at 10:10am! No delay coming from Asia per our experience

  19. This is not new. There will be no local traffic on the domestic leg.
    Are just a couple of examples.

    Crew are exempt from the foreign ban.

    With long immigration lines and the uncertainty of the connecting time perhaps they will get a waiver to clear in each city for those who disembark rather then the entire plane. With no local boarding it could happen but unlikely.

    Are there enough Americans still tracing to or via China to make it worthwhile?

    I guess time will tell.

  20. Lucky: what are these reports?

    “There are reports of immigration in the US taking six hours in some cases for those arriving from Asia (even those not coming from China).”

  21. The Air China crew hotel/apartment building is in my neighborhood in NY.

    I wonder if my neighbors realize it?

  22. Arrived JFK terminal 1 last evening. Immigration line was shorter and faster than normal. Got through with no line mobile passport, and a green card holder got through in about 20 minutes. At around 8pm it seemed our flight from Seoul was the only flight arriving based on no other carousels being used.

    Also, I may have missed it, but I didn’t see any thermal cameras checking for fevers.

  23. I also have a flight to Japan with them scheduled for next month, flying through Beijing. Bought on Priceline some time ago. I wonder if they’ll reroute with a partner (ticket was in J)- Or should I just take the refund and bag the trip? Was just for fun/miles.

  24. Perhaps we’ll see some carriers offering reduced fares and award ticket reductions to stimulate loads – it must be beginning to hurt the bottom line

  25. Actually Sharon, they make a lot of sense.

    As above, similar are also and have long been done by other carriers.

  26. My former colleague at the CDC has been in Tokyo. He left PKG 6 days ago. Empty streets and they based him in Tokyo for safety reasons??? Take this for what it’s worth. Jean said that they knew of this December 18 and any number I saw should be x10. He also said 2 months for a vaccination to be created using ARVs and antibiotics.
    The biggest issue is that daily traffic over to HKG has not been stopped. Didn’t surprise me when HKG flights were also temp stopped. At this point I don’t trust what the Chinese govt days and flights should not be allowed. Nothing is under control yet as far as a decrease in cases.
    In Japan here life seems normal as always but the government said that for 4 months post Fukushima that there was a meltdown. The US military knew 24 hours later as I received a call from my military buddy and I got out of here.
    Careful believing what the govt is saying. Profit over health with them.

  27. My guess is that they’re desperate to avoid having to refund people lots and lots of money by combining the flights (since if they cut one of the destinations they’d probably have to offer all of the folks on the flight in question a refund, whereas with this it is probably just a “schedule change”).

    With a six-hour immigration backup, it would literally be faster to go downtown and take the train from DC to NYC or vice-versa.

    Dang shame they’re not going the Fifth Freedom route…wouldn’t mind having *someone* replace CX as a Fifth Freedom option to Canada.

  28. “There are reports of immigration in the US taking six hours in some cases for those arriving from Asia (even those not coming from China).”


  29. Agreed with Mizanne that you need to cite sources more often because some of the content in this article is not believable.

    Air China does not need to justify their actions in China as they are state owned and seemingly wants to capture any remaining parts to the market they can.

  30. I will be flying China Air from SF to Tokyo round trip in May with no travel to China. Of course my concern is if the Chinese plane and crew and possibly passengers may be contaminated. Should I be concerned?

  31. The comment section of this article was so much more entertaining, dare I say informative, than the actual article itself. You’re all amazing Americans. God Bless America.

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