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Major International Airlines Return to China

United, Delta, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Air France are just some of the major airlines that have already returned to China, or have announced plans to do so in the coming weeks

by Fergus Cole

February 13, 2023

Photo: Beijing International Airport. Courtesy of Joe Green / Unsplash

Over a month has passed since China lifted most of its COVID-19 travel restrictions, and major international airlines are now resuming flights to the country for the first time in almost three years.

The Chinese government has imposed some of the world’s tightest and most restrictive anti-COVID measures since the pandemic began in early 2020, virtually barring all tourists and foreign business travelers from entering the country.

However, a decision was made by Beijing to reopen the country’s borders on January 8, and most restrictions were immediately scrapped, including the requirement for visitors to show proof of a negative test and quarantine. Other restrictions on foreign airlines were also removed, including rules which meant they could only operate one route to the country at a rate of one service per week.

Photo: Beijing International Airport. Courtesy of Lumi W / Unsplash

Following the removal of these restrictions, airlines from across the globe have been scrambling to resume operations in China and reclaim some of their lost market shares. 

China expects around 100 million foreign visitors to enter the country this year, making it one of the most important travel markets in the world.

So, let’s take a look at some of the biggest airlines that are resuming or boosting services to China:

U.S. Airlines

  • United Airlines have already resumed flights in and out of China and is currently operating a service between San Francisco (SFO) and Shanghai (PVG) four times per week. The carrier has also removed the routes stopover in Seoul (ICN), cutting the journey time from China to the U.S. by over two hours.
  • Delta Air Lines has confirmed it will be resuming flights between Detroit (DTW) and Shanghai twice weekly from March 3. And like United, Delta is also removing Seoul as a stopover on this route.

European Airlines

  • Virgin Atlantic will resume daily flights between London Heathrow (LHR) and Shanghai from May 1, marking the carrier’s first return to China in almost three years.
  • British Airways will reconnect passengers in the U.K. to Shanghai from April 23, while direct flights to Beijing (PEK) will resume on June 3.
  • Air France has already resumed direct flights to China, resuming weekly flights to Beijing in early January and three flights per week to Hong Kong (HKG) and Shanghai. All three routes will then increase to a daily schedule from July.
  • Dutch carrier KLM will begin resuming operations in China at the end of March, connecting Amsterdam (AMS) to Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.

Other Airlines

  • Japan Airlines resumed flights to China in early February and operates weekly flights between Tokyo Haneda (HND) and Beijing each Sunday.
  • Thai Airways is resuming thrice-weekly flights between Bangkok (BKK) and Beijing on March 2, in addition to already-resumed flights to Guangzhou (CAN), Kunming (KMG), and Chengdu (CTU).
  • Emirates will operate 21 flights to China each week from the middle of March, including to both Shanghai and Guangzhou. The U.A.E.-based carrier will also resume a daily service between Dubai (DXB) and Beijing on March 15.
  • Egyptair is boosting the frequency of its flights from Cairo (CAI) to Guangzhou at the end of February, up to three flights per week.
  • Kenya Airways is resuming a twice-weekly service between Nairobi (NBO) and Guangzhou in the middle of February, and this will increase to three flights per week from March 2.

While many major airlines have already resumed some services in and out of China or announced details of when and where they will return, many others have faced significant obstacles.

Photo: Finnair, Airbus A350-900. Courtesy of Joshua Leong / Unsplash

European airlines, in particular, are being affected by Russia closing its airspace to E.U. and U.K. operators due to the Ukraine conflict. The airspace closure means that these airlines must take considerable detours to reach China, adding significant fuel costs to their overheads.

“European carriers have been badly hit by the Siberian overflight ban,” said Patrick Edmond, managing director of aviation consulting firm Altair Advisory. “Finnair is the most extreme case, but everyone else has been affected to a greater or lesser extent. They are all faced with increased costs owing to longer routings caused by the airspace closure.”