In tit-for-tat politics, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) is restricting passenger loads on a number of US-bound flights of Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, and Xiamen Airlines over the course of four weeks.

The move is in retaliation against a similar restriction on United Airlines imposed earlier this month by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).

China’s action followed after five passengers on a United Airlines flight on July 21, 2021, from San Francisco, CA to Shanghai Pudong, tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in that country. CAAC informed United Airlines of the same on August 6, 2021.

In terms of a “circuit breaker” policy that punishes airlines for carrying COVID-positive passengers, China gave United four options: to either cancel two flights on the route; operate two flights without passengers; or operate four inbound flights with a maximum passenger load factor of 40%. United chose the latter and was instructed to apply the capacity restriction to four Wednesday flights beginning August 11, 2021.

In an August 18, 2021, modification of an order issued on June 1, 2020, the DOT noted it had repeatedly objected to China to the unilaterally imposed circuit breaker provisions and its inconsistency with the provisions of the US-China bilateral air service agreement. It argued that it placed “undue culpability” on US carriers regarding passengers who tested positive after arrival in China. The DOT argued that as US carriers followed all relevant Chinese regulations with respect to pre-departure and in-flight protocols, they should not be penalised as a result of travellers later testing positive.

It pointed out that Chinese authorities independently cleared all passengers before their departure from the US after verifying pre-departure testing results. In addition, US carriers were unable to independently verify positive test results alleged by China. “Furthermore, there is no way to establish where or when a traveller may have contracted COVID-19,” the DOT said. It found that CAAC’s impairment of United Airlines’ operations was “adverse to the public interest”, therefore warranting proportionate remedial action.

The US regulator thus decided to collectively limit over the course of a four-week period, each of the four Chinese carriers currently providing China-US passenger services to a 40% passenger load on a single China-US route.

The flights affected are as follows:

United Airlines said it was “pleased to see this action (by the DOT) in pursuit of fairness in this important market.”