U.S. and China ease coronavirus flight restrictions again after an earlier standoff

Chinese airlines will now be able to fly to the U.S. up to four times a week, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) said Monday, doubling the current number of permitted flights for those carriers.

The DOT said the expansion was a response to China allowing U.S. airlines the same flight frequency—four per week—to China. Delta said it will start to resume service next week, and United said it will resume service to China in the coming weeks.

The further relaxation of flight restrictions suggest that both countries are backing off from an earlier impasse about passenger flight service between the U.S. and China.

The standoff began when two U.S. carriers, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, asked to resume service to China in June—a third, American Airlines, wanted to restart flights in the fall—and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) didn’t immediately respond to their requests.

The DOT retaliated on June 3, saying it would ban all passenger flights of Chinese airlines to and from the U.S. from mid-June. The agency invoked the U.S. and China’s 1980 Civil Air Transport Agreement, which states that for every flight to the U.S. by a Chinese carrier, an American carrier is entitled to a flight to China.

The ban would have covered seven Chinese airlines—Air China, Beijing Capital Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, Sichuan Airlines, and Xiamen Airlines.

Four of those airlines—Air China, Xiamen Airlines, China Southern, and China Eastern—are currently flying between the U.S. and China, the DOT said.

A day after the DOT announced the ban, which would have gone into effect on June 16, China said it would allow U.S. airlines to resume limited service to China, allaying concerns that U.S.-China air travel might become another flashpoint in the two countries’ tensions over trade, human rights, and the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the pandemic grounded planes worldwide, American and Chinese airlines made around 300 round-trip flights per week between the two countries. In mid-February, four Chinese carriers were making 20 flights a week. The DOT said on Monday it aimed to further increase U.S. flight frequency to China under the 1980 agreement.

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