As China sees first signs of recovery, flights return. But who will fly?
While most U.S. airlines are cutting flights to historically low numbers because of the coronavirus pandemic, three mainland Chinese carriers plan to resume non-stop flights to San Francisco International Airport this month, a move SFO officials said “marks a hopeful change in direction.”
The resumption of flights is one of several early signs that the worst could be over in China, meaning the crisis will eventually come to an end here, too.
China Eastern will resume a daily non-stop flight this month between its hub in Shanghai and San Francisco using a Boeing 777-300ER jet. Flights are expected to start on Saturday, March 28
Strangely, flights were not yet available for booking at the time of this writing on the airline’s North America website.
Air China plans to resume non-stop flights between Beijing and San Francisco this Saturday with flights operating on a limited schedule, and on sporadic days throughout the week.
Economy class fares are selling for north of $3,000, a staggering price tag considering round-trip fares on this route were typically sub-$600 before the coronavirus crisis.
Air China did not entirely stop serving SFO during the peak of the outbreak in China. It flew flights four times a week to Los Angeles. After a 90-minute stop at LAX, those flights continued north to SFO. The Chinese carrier had a similar arrangement on the U.S. East Coast: flights flew from Beijing to New York’s Kennedy Airport and then onwards to Washington-Dulles Airport and vice versa.
China Southern intends to resume its non-stop flight from Guangzhou to San Francisco on March 29. It will operate four times a week, on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays using Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner jets.
This flight had originally included a stop in Wuhan, where the outbreak began, but this resumption will not include a stop in that city.
Fares on this route aren’t cheap either, running on average for a round-trip flight in the $2,500 range in economy class.
These high price tags underscore the scarcity (definitely not the demand) in non-stop flights between the U.S. and China. In the weeks following the outbreak, and with the onset of Trump administration travel restrictions, U.S. carriers hastily suspended all their flights to China.
Those restrictions still remain in place, and have expanded to include the U.K., Ireland, and European countries in the Schengen area.
Foreign nationals who have been in mainland China for the last 14 days are banned from entering the United States. U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are allowed to return home, but must quarantine for 14 days after their arrival.
So who might book these flights? Undoubtedly, it will be the people who urgently need to travel intercontinentally.
Perhaps it’s the Americans who have been in China for the past two months — there are many who split their time between family in the mainland and Northern California — or the foreign nationals here on the West Coast who have been unable to return home until now.
And of course, those big jets have big cargo holds, and there is plenty of pent-up demand for U.S. and Chinese products on both sides of the Pacific.
All three airlines are majority owned by the Chinese government (Air China is the national flag carrier), so operating these flights at near-empty loads and at a financial loss should not be much of a concern for each carrier. The likelihood is these flights will be mostly empty, and that’s okay when you have the deep pockets of the Chinese government to finance these flights.
With China slowly turning the corner as it relates to the pandemic, it may be the safest place to be in the months ahead as countries elsewhere grapple with the terrible consequences of this virus.
Chris McGinnis is SFGATE’s senior travel correspondent. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Don’t miss a shred of important travel news by signing up for his FREE biweekly email updates!
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