By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Chinese airlines are avoiding flying over Russian airspace in newly approved flights to and from the United States, according to flight tracking website FlightAware and industry officials.
Russia has barred U.S. airlines and other foreign carriers from flying over its airspace, in retaliation for Washington banning Russian flights over the U.S. in March 2022 after the country invaded Ukraine.
FlightAware records show Chinese flights recently approved by Washington are not flying over Russia, while previously approved Chinese airline U.S. flights are still using Russian airspace.
On May 3, the U.S. Transportation Department (USDOT) said it would allow Chinese airlines to increase U.S. passenger services to 12 weekly round-trips, equal to the number of flights Beijing has permitted for American carriers. Previously, only eight weekly flights by Chinese carriers were allowed.
USDOT Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs Annie Petsonk declined to answer a question about whether the Biden administration had required that the Chinese carriers avoid Russian airspace as a condition of approving four new flights.
Petsonk said the gradual rise to 12 flights for China and the United States “is the kind of measured pace that we are likely to see.” The 12 weekly flights are a small fraction of the more than 150 round-trip flights allowed by each side before restrictions were imposed in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is certainly great interest on both sides in moving forward,” Petsonk added.
On May 18, USDOT approved a new weekly Air China 601111.SS flight from Beijing to New York, a new weekly China Eastern 600115.SS Shanghai Los Angeles flight, a third weekly Xiamen Airlines flight from Xiamen to Los Angeles and second weekly China Southern 600029.SS flight from Guangzhou to Los Angeles. The Xiamen and China Southern flights were both effective May 30.
The Chinese carriers could not immediately be reached.
An emailed statement from Liu Pengyu, spokesperson in the Chinese Embassy in Washington, did not address if Chinese carriers had agreed to avoid Russian airspace for new flights.
“Direct flights are essential for increasing mutual visits between Chinese and American peoples,” he said. “We hope that the restoration of more flights will do good to the flow of people and trade between the two countries.”
In February, two U.S. senators urged the Biden administration to halt Chinese airlines from flying over Russia on U.S. routes, which gives them an advantage in fuel burn and flying time. At the time, Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. carriers, praised the senators’ push, noting longstanding industry concerns about flying over Russia.