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Trump orders halt to U.S. flights by Chinese air carriers

Ban by the Department of Transportation responds to China's prohibition of U.S. airlines to and from that nation

Air China is among the airlines affected by the Trump administration's ban.
Air China is among the airlines affected by the Trump administration's ban. (Guan Jianfei/VCG via Getty Images)

The Trump administration said it would suspend all commercial passenger flights by Chinese carriers to and from the United States by June 16, a move that may escalate tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

The announcement from the Department of Transportation on Wednesday follows the Chinese government’s continuing ban of U.S. airline flights to and from China because of fears of coronavirus transmission.

“This action responds to the failure of the Government of the People’s Republic of China to permit U.S. carriers to exercise their bilateral rights to conduct passenger air service to China,” an agency spokesperson said. “Currently, four Chinese carriers and no U.S. carriers operate scheduled passenger flights between the United States and China.”

U.S. carriers had asked to resume passenger service on June 1, the spokesman said, adding “the Chinese government’s failure to approve their requests is a violation of our Air Transport Agreement.” 

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The ban will impact operations of seven carriers, including Air China and China Eastern Airlines. While it is scheduled to go into effect June 16, it may take effect sooner if President Donald Trump chooses.  

Air transportation between the two countries decreased in late January, as American, Delta and United Airlines all curtailed their scheduled U.S.-China services. Similarly, Chinese carriers also suspended flights to and from the U.S. By March, U.S. airlines had ceased operations to and from China, but according to DOT, Chinese carriers did not do the same and rather “maintained a degree of passenger service” from January through March 12.  

‘Arbitrary’

The DOT spokesperson referred to the March 12 date as an “arbitrary baseline” “inconsistent” with the notice from the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC). U.S. carriers including United and Delta had originally planned to resume service to China in early June.

DOT said it would continue to “engage our Chinese counterparts so both U.S. and Chinese carriers can fully exercise their bilateral rights” and will allow Chinese carriers to operate the same number of scheduled passenger flights as the Chinese government allows the U.S.

“We believe DOT’s order will ensure fair and equal opportunity for passenger airlines with respect to service to and from China,” said Katherine Estep, communications director of Airlines for America, an industry trade group. “We hope that this process will protect the rights afforded to U.S. carriers under the current U.S.-China Air Transport Agreement.”

Strained relations

The new ban is a small marker in the deteriorating relationship between the two countries, said Ali Wyne, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who focuses on U.S.-China strategic relations.

“It feels more like a footnote to the narrative that has taken shape over the past five months than a chapter of it: relations between the United States and China have fallen to their lowest level since normalization in 1979, and are deteriorating daily,” Wyne wrote in an email. 

The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the imperiled autonomy of Hong Kong and the intensification of the two countries technological competition, he said, “are among the factors that have moved them from competitive coexistence to mutual antagonism.”

While a complete break in U.S.-China relations seems unlikely, he said, “it sadly seems difficult to avoid concluding that bilateral ties have entered into a fundamentally new period, with few self-evident guardrails to circumscribe competition and escalation.”

Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.

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