Soon we’ll see the weekly flight cap between the United States and China double. This is a positive development, though we’re still a far cry from the pre-pandemic service we saw between the countries.
US & China modify bilateral agreement to 24 weekly flights
China doesn’t participate in the Open Skies agreement, which allows airlines to more or less add unlimited service between countries that are part of the agreement, pending available landing slots (for example, both the United States and European Union participate in Open Skies, which is why US airlines can add as many routes to Europe as they want).
Instead, air service to China is based on bilateral agreements between countries. During the pandemic, China greatly restricted foreign carrier service to the country, and many countries retaliated by similarly restricting Chinese airlines from flying to their countries.
This wasn’t a big issue when China was in full lockdown mode, but with China having more or less lifted all coronavirus restrictions, suffice it to say that air service to the country is quite limited.
Under the current agreement between the United States and China, airlines from each country can collectively operate 12 weekly round trip flights between the two countries. That will soon be changing:
- As of September 1, 2023, that will increase to 18 weekly round trip flights
- As of October 29, 2023, that will increase to 24 weekly round trip flights
For context, up until May 2023, each country was restricted to eight weekly flights. This is why we’ve seen airlines operating once weekly service in popular markets, like Beijing to New York and Shanghai to Los Angeles.
It’s important to note that 24 weekly flights between each country is still only a small fraction of pre-pandemic service. Prior to the pandemic, the US and China bilateral agreement allowed for 150 weekly flights, so by late October, we’ll be back to 16% of pre-pandemic capacity.
Increased service is good for consumers
Obviously increased service between the United States and China is good for those looking to travel between the two countries, since it should open up more frequencies, leading to lower fares. But even if you have no interest in traveling to China, this could still positively impact you.
In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a massive increase in airfare between the United States and virtually all of Asia. That’s largely because of the situation between the United States and China:
- Most people traveling to and from China have been connecting through other countries for long haul travel, taking up seats and raising fares through Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore, etc.
- Pre-pandemic, Chinese airlines did a lot of capacity dumping, so many people connected in China when traveling between the United States and other points in Asia, leading to much lower airfare
Increased service between the United States and China should lead to lower fares and more award availability in other markets. However, we still have a long way to go here. We’re now going from 8% of pre-pandemic capacity to 16% of pre-pandemic capacity.
United announces daily Beijing and Shanghai flights?!
Following the revelation that slots between the United States and China would be doubled, United Airlines has announced that it plans to resume daily flights to both Beijing and Shanghai:
- United has announced that it will fly daily between San Francisco and Shanghai as of October 2023
- United has announced that it will fly daily between San Francisco and Beijing as of November 2023
Now, I’m a little confused, and maybe that’s United’s goal. United is claiming it will operate 14 weekly flights between the United States and China, making up 59% of the total US airline allocation. The press release states authoritatively that these routes will be launched, and doesn’t suggest that United is merely applying for this service.
However, the bottom of the press release states “flights pending government approval.” So is United simply applying to operate this service and hopes it will get approved, or is there some agreement between the Department of Transportation and United that I missed, granting United the lion’s share of US airline service to China?
In the coming weeks, we’ll see weekly flight allotments between the United States and China double. With this, airlines from each country will collectively be able to operate 24 weekly flights. That’s better than the 12 that are currently allowed, but a far cry from the 150 that were allowed pre-pandemic.
With this change, capacity will be at 16% of pre-pandemic levels. It’s a step in the right direction, but don’t expect airfare between the United States and Asia to decrease meaningfully until we get closer to those numbers again.
What do you make of air service between the United States and China increasing?