Early in the pandemic China limited U.S. airline flights, as part of its pandemic response. This came after the U.S. imposed a ban on passengers who had been to China in the previous fourteen days. And in response to China’s limits on U.S. airline flights, the Trump administration limited Chinese airline flights. This was protectionist tit-for-tat, and clearly not because the U.S. was imposing any sort of quarantine and testing regime on air travel (it wasn’t).
In the U.S. view, Chinese limits on U.S. airline flights are a violation of the air services treaty between the two countries. So when the Chinese government served notice on United Airlines that “five passengers who traveled from San Francisco to Shanghai tested positive for COVID-19 on July 21” and that United would face limits on its flying as a result, that provoked an international trade incident.
China gave United Airlines three options,
cancel two San Francisco – Shanghai flights
operate two flights without passengers
operate four inbound flights with a 40% load factor cap
United agreed to the third option, and China instructed that the load factor cap had to be applied to four Wednesday flights, starting August 11, 2021.
In response (.pdf) the U.S. government says punishing airlines for bringing Covid-positive passengers to China is bogus,
[The U.S. government] has conveyed its view that the “circuit breaker” measure places undue culpability on carriers with respect to travelers that test positive for COVID-19 after their arrival in China. As carriers are following all relevant Chinese regulations with respect to pre-departure and in-flight protocols, they should not be penalized as a result of travelers later testing positive. In accordance with those regulations, the Chinese government individually clears each and every potential traveler for travel to China prior to their departure from the United States after verifying predeparture testing results and other required documentation. Carriers have no means to independently verify positive test results alleged by Chinese authorities. Furthermore, there is no way to establish where or when a traveler may have contracted COVID-19.
And so – for entirely un-Covid related reasons – the U.S. government is limiting Chinese flights in response. The Biden Administration’s Department of Transportation is imposing 40% load factor caps on four different Chinese airlines, over four separate routes, and over the course of four weeks.
Air China: Beijing – Los Angeles (August 23-29, 2021)
China Eastern: Shanghai – New York JFK (August 30-September 5, 2021)
China Southern: Guangzhou – Los Angeles (September 6-12, 2021)
Xiamen Airlines: Xiamen – Los Angeles (September 13-19)
In The Untouchables, Sean Connery told Kevin Costner that key to beating Al Capone is escalation:
He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.
United only had load factor caps on four flights. Four Chinese airlines have load factor caps on four routes, totaling six flights. Air China and China Southern are running their flights only once weekly, while China Eastern and Xiamen Airlines are operating their routes twice-weekly.
China though at least has the narrative that they’re taking Covid-19 seriously, and the U.S. isn’t. The U.S. takes issue with China’s health measures, so it copies them and then some for reasons other than health. Maybe the better analogy is Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles holding a gun to his own head?
Regardless anyone that’s expected the Biden administration to toe a materially different line than the Trump administration with respect to China hasn’t watched Biden administration energy or immigration policy.