This was likely inevitable: All three of the major global U.S. airlines are suspending their service to mainland China, effective within a few days. They had been under pressure to do so, with the State Department issuing a “level four” travel warning for China — meaning, do not go there — and with the Air Line Pilots Association suing American Airlines to stop China service and instructing its members not to operate American’s flights to China.
There are still unresolved aspects of U.S. airline service to China. American, United, and Delta have all said they will operate to China for a few more days, so that employees and customers currently in China can leave the country. And American and United intend to continue serving Hong Kong — though as writer Ben Schlappig of One Mile at a Time notes, American seems to be having difficulty flying to Hong Kong in practice, with last night’s scheduled flight from Los Angeles and this morning’s from Dallas both eventually getting canceled after many hours of delay. ALPA’s instruction to American pilots was not to fly to “China,” and as the communist leadership in Beijing would like to remind you, Hong Kong is a part of China.
“It is important to note that our daily operations to Hong Kong from DFW and LAX remain unchanged and service to Hong Kong is not included in our current suspended service,” an American spokesperson told me in an email, after I asked whether its pilots are refusing to fly to Hong Kong. “However, we have experienced some cancellations due to operational reasons.”
Okay. What operational reasons?
“The flights were unable to operate due to reasons determined by the operation, which required American to cancel the flights,” I was told. The airline never addressed my initial question, which, again, was whether the flights haven’t gone because the pilots were unwilling to fly them, but that is my (and Schlappig’s) supposition.
Besides pressure from employees and increasingly strident government warnings, U.S. airlines face a financial imperative to suspend their China service. Customers don’t want to go to China, including because U.S. firms are instructing their employees to cancel and delay business travel to China. The airlines have offered travel waivers, as they typically do when weather events and other crises strike a region. These allow customers to delay planned travel to China or, in some cases, cancel the travel for a refund or credit toward future flights. Once enough travelers take these options, operating a flight to China becomes a money-losing proposition.
The situation of U.S. carriers having to figure out how to manage a substantial amount of service to mainland China during an infectious-disease outbreak is unprecedented because it wasn’t until the last few years that U.S. carriers had significant service to mainland China. As Edward Russell of the Points Guy notes, when SARS broke out in 2002, United and Northwest Airlines each had two routes from the U.S. to mainland China, with each airline also operating to China from Tokyo. No other U.S. carrier flew to mainland China at all, so if you wanted to get there, you generally had to fly through a non-Chinese Asian hub, like Tokyo or Seoul.
It is still possible, for now, to fly nonstop between the U.S. and China on various Chinese air carriers, though there is some political pressure in Washington to prohibit nonstop air service by any carrier — and with the U.S. carriers temporarily exiting the market anyway, such a push isn’t likely to face much resistance from airline interest groups inside the U.S.
It is also possible to travel to and from China through a nearby airline hub outside China. This makes the most sense as the way to provide last-resort transportation in and out of China: In addition to demand becoming insufficient to support nonstop flights all the way to and from the U.S., it is easier to operate short-haul flights in and out of a troubled country than long-haul ones. One of the good points raised by American pilots who don’t want to fly to China is that U.S. government crew-rest regulations require them to stay in China for 32 hours before operating flights home. Airlines that operate from near China can simply have their crews turn around and fly back without the need for a long layover. This logic has driven, for example, what airlines chose to maintain or suspend in terms of service to Venezuela during deepening political and economic turmoil that has caused troubles, from crime against flight crews to difficulty collecting fares.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made a foolish comment on Thursday, proposing that the outbreak might “accelerate the return of jobs to North America.” (Ross did preface that observation by saying, “I don’t want to talk about a victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease.”) This reflects the Trump administration’s misconception that economic relations between the U.S. and China are fully a zero-sum matter. In practice, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down over 600 points on Friday. Economic costs from coronavirus will be felt most severely in China, but the impacts are negative virtually everywhere — as former Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem put it on my podcast Left, Right & Center this week, the outbreak is bad for virtually all businesses except the surgical-mask business. We will see in the next few weeks exactly how bad it shapes up to be, including how long U.S. carriers feel the need to stay away from China.