Long lines for flights to US as new semester approaches

Yang Jian
Flights between China and the United States have been almost completely full with soaring ticket prices, as the US government eased COVID-19 restrictions on international students.
Yang Jian

Flights between China and the United States have been almost completely full with soaring ticket prices, as the US government eased COVID-19 restrictions on international students this month ahead of the new semester.

An increasing number of travelers, mainly Chinese students studying abroad, have been waiting at airline counters at Shanghai Pudong International Airport recently. Long queues can stretch for more than 1,000 meters, and the check-in process for flights departing to the US can last for several hours.

The US government announced students with valid visas from China and several other nations are qualified for exemptions to entry bans in place over the past year due to COVID-19 concerns beginning August 1.

Students from China account for more than one-third of foreign students at US universities, far more than any country.

The United Kingdom has also eased restrictions on travelers from China. Those who have received two shots of COVID-19 vaccines can be exempt from quarantines after entering the country.

A traveler from neighboring Zhejiang Province who saw off a friend's child to study in the US said they had to wait in line for four hours to get a boarding pass.

Overseas students have to provide multiple certificates, such as nucleic acid test results in Chinese and English, an address and contact person in the US, a health declaration and proof of the new semester date, the traveler said.

Furthermore, most of the students had at least two pieces of check-in luggage, further prolonging the check-in period.

The number of overseas travelers at Pudong airport has increased, because the Lukou International Airport in neighboring Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, has been temporarily shut down due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak.

"Currently, most people traveling between the US and China are students studying abroad. Demand increased in May as the summer vacation season approached and recently with the beginning of the new semester," said Wong Hong, Delta Airlines' president of Chinese operations.

One of the major operators of China-US flights, Delta now operates four weekly flights between the two nations, and every flight has been almost completely full during the ongoing peak period, said Wong.

Delta expanded its seating capacity on May 1 in response to increasing demand. Middle seats on all flights between China and the US have been reopened to increase the capacity of each aircraft by nearly 20 percent. Delta has also implemented additional health and safety measures to ensure passenger safety.

The US and China have each allowed eight weekly flights between the two countries, easing travel restrictions in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to Delta, United Airlines is operating four weekly passenger flights between San Francisco and Shanghai.

The carriers are capping capacity on flights to China at 75 percent to abide by the stipulation of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).

Chinese carriers, including Air China, China Eastern, China Southern and Xiamen Air, are operating flights between Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xiamen and Los Angeles and New York.

Cathay Pacific said demand has been soaring recently for flights to the United States via Hong Kong.

The carrier is operating nearly 300 flights in August and September to New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as Toronto, Vancouver, London and Manchester to meet rising demand from students studying abroad.

The Hong Kong-based carrier has also implemented additional luggage quotas, free refunds and exchanges, COVID-19 insurance and other services for students.

Expanding demand and the limited number of flights have led to steep price increases. The price for an economy-class ticket for a transfer flight to the US via Hong Kong, for instance, has increased to more than 30,000 yuan (US$4,632) from about 5,000 yuan several months ago.

The cost of a business class ticket has soared to as high as 100,000 yuan.

The travel rush between the two nations won't last long due to the sustaining travel ban and quarantine policies amid the pandemic. A full recovery for China-US flights is expected next year, Wong said.

Passenger's willingness to travel remains strong, but elevated international travel restrictions and rising COVID-19 cases in some regions represent a risk to an air travel rebound, according to the latest report from the International Air Transport Association.

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