A China Eastern Airlines' Airbus 330 prepares to take off at Pudong International Airport.
Major Chinese airlines have announced plans to largely restore international flights from later this month to further boost cross-border exchanges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The State Council, or China's Cabinet, has called for an "orderly increase in the number of domestic and international flights, while taking convenience measures for the travel of foreign company staffers."
"China's civil aviation regulator will keep negotiating with other countries to gradually increase the number of international flights," said Xu Qing, director of the transport department of the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
Xu told the CAAC's monthly press briefing that regular international passenger flights will be restored smoothly to meet the demand of overseas Chinese students and other personnel who need to return or leave China.
The country's three largest airlines – China Eastern, China Southern and Air China – along with some other domestic carriers have released their flight adjustment plans for the upcoming winter-spring aviation season from October 30, with more international routes to be restored, added or newly opened.
Shanghai-based China Eastern plans to operate 108 international flights per week from the end of the month, doubling the current 54 weekly international flights.
The restored overseas services include the popular routes between domestic cities (including Shanghai, Qingdao in east Shandong Province, Hangzhou in neighboring Zhejiang Province, Nanjing in neighboring Jiangsu Province, and Kunming in southwest Yunnan Province) and Bangkok, Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City as well as Dubai.
Many of the routes have been suspended due to travel restrictions since the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020.
Passengers check in at an airline's counter at Pudong airport for an overseas trip.
Guangzhou-based China Southern plans to restore or increase the frequency of flights between Guangzhou and Jakarta, Tokyo, Dubai, Manila, Bangkok and Phnom Penh. The number of international flights will rise to 86 from 71 at present during the new flight season.
Air China, the nation's flagship carrier, will restore multiple routes between Beijing and international cities, such as Manila, Jakarta, Tokyo, Warsaw, Athens, Vancouver, Los Angeles and Toronto.
Spring Airlines, China's biggest budget carrier, will mainly restore its short-haul overseas services to Hong Kong, Macau, Osaka, Tokyo, Seoul and Bangkok, while Juneyao, another Shanghai-based private carrier, will restore its Nanjing-Seoul and Nanjing-Osaka flights from October.
With the number of international flights surging, ticket prices will be largely reduced.
Air China's Beijing-Tokyo one-way economy-class ticket, for instance, is being sold at 2,080 yuan (US$289). Spring Airlines' Shanghai-Macau ticket costs 99 yuan.
"I spent 30,000 yuan to buy a direct flight ticket from London's Heathrow airport to Shanghai's Pudong airport in August, but still felt quite lucky to be able to buy the air ticket and fly home," said Xue Yuqi, a Chinese student studying in London.
A London-Shanghai China Eastern ticket was sold for over 90,000 yuan in July, despite the transfer-transit process, compared with the about 10,000 yuan for the direct service between the two countries that resumed in late August.
International airlines have also been given the nod to gradually restore or increase their flights to the Chinese mainland.
A Juneyao Airlines long-haul passenger aircraft berths at Pudong airport.
Etihad Airways Flight EY868 from Abu Dhabi to Guangzhou landed at Baiyun International Airport on October 11, marking the airline's first restored flight to the Chinese mainland since the COVID-19 outbreak. It plans to further restore its regular services to Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.
Budget carrier Scoot Airways has restored flights from Singapore to seven Chinese mainland cities, including Tianjin in the north and Chengdu in southwest Sichuan Province.
About 35 international flights with 10,000-plus seats were operated on the Chinese mainland every day in September, up by a quarter month on month, according to flight data provider Flight Master.
Another aviation data analyst VariFlight revealed that the number of international flights on the Chinese mainland has more than doubled in early October, compared with that in June.
"It has been a brutal two years for airlines, but we are seeing signs of recovery now," said Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association.
International traffic rose 115.6 percent in August 2022 year on year, with airlines in Asia delivering the strongest growth rates, he added.
The international travel volume has reached 67.4 percent of August 2019 levels before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the IATA.
China has slashed the quarantine period for inbound travelers by half in the updated COVID-19 control protocol issued in June.
They will now undergo seven days of central quarantine and three days of home monitoring, instead of 14 and seven days, respectively, previously.
China Southern Airlines wide-body aircraft fleet at Guangzhou's Baiyun International Airport.
"It is necessary to relax the quarantine period for inbound travelers in the context of COVID-19 prevention and control," said Qi Qi, an associate professor of Guangzhou Civil Aviation College.
"However, the losses will outweigh the gains if international flights are restored blindly and a large number of COVID-19 cases are imported," he warned.
As a major international air hub of China, Shanghai has reported more than 400 imported cases at Pudong International Airport since October 1, according to the city's health commission.
On Tuesday, the city reported 28 imported cases mainly from the United States, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and South Korea.
The number of international flights to China has been greatly reduced since March 2020, when the CAAC allowed one airline from each country to operate one route and one flight every week to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
In June 2020, the administration also launched its suspension mechanism for international passenger flights, which has been eased since August.
According to the "optimized rule," an inbound international flight will be suspended for a week, rather than for two as previously, if imported COVID-19 cases on board reach five or 4 percent of the total number of passengers.
The flight will be put on hold for two weeks, if the number of imported infections reaches 8 percent of the travelers on board.
"The adjustment aims to balance COVID-19 prevention and economic and social development, as well as promote cross-border exchanges and cooperation," the CAAC said.
A traveler checks in with her passport at Baiyun airport in Guangzhou.
Editor: Xu Qing