The US has approved more flights for China, but the real winner is Russia 


America’s competitiveness may become yet another casualty of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) latest decision to allow more flights from Chinese airlines set to boost Russia and China while undercutting American companies.  

In February, the DOT reached an agreement with the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to increase the number of round-trip direct flights between the U.S. and China from 35 to 50 flights per week. While this number is still just a fraction of the pre-COVID-19 peak of 325 flights per week, approving even a minimal increase in the number of Chinese flights to the U.S. tangentially helps funnel money into Russian President Vladmir Putin’s pocket.  

Russia bars U.S. air carriers from flying over Russian airspace, putting them at a significant disadvantage to Chinese airlines. While Chinese airlines are permitted to use Russian airspace, U.S. airlines stopped doing so after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.  

Chinese airlines that use Russian airspace save a substantial amount of time and fuel on flights between the U.S. and China. U.S. airlines not only must fly farther, but they must also carry fewer passengers because of the greater fuel load needed, which gives Chinese airlines a distinct cost advantage. According to one estimate, U.S. carriers already lose $2 billion per year because of this restriction on airspace.   

What’s more, Russia also collects fees from airlines that use Russian airspace, giving Putin and Russia funds that can be used in the war against Ukraine. Allowing more flights from Chinese airlines also impacts the U.S. economy more broadly, taking away airline jobs and reducing GDP.  

This is a bipartisan issue. After the DOT announced its decision, Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) wrote a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Secretary of State Antony Blinken sharing concerns about the expansion. The lawmakers argued that more flights from Chinese airlines should not be approved until China abides by its bilateral services agreement with the U.S., which was suspended at the beginning of the pandemic. As the lawmakers noted, “Should the U.S.-China passenger carrier market expand without the U.S. government addressing these significant issues, U.S. aviation workers, travelers and airlines will pay a hefty price tag.” 

There are several ways to resolve this issue. For instance, the DOT could rescind its plan to increase the number of direct flights. It is also possible that the CAAC could choose to avoid Russian airspace, as it did in 2023 when the DOT increased the number of direct flights between the two countries from eight to 12. Chinese airlines may choose to adopt that same posture for additional flights, given the controversial nature of the DOT’s decision.  

While it is certainly understandable that the Biden administration wishes to reestablish the bilateral services agreement with China, which would help connect the two countries and serve to ease trade tensions, there is a better way to do so. There is a path forward that does not cede business and revenue to China — to the detriment of U.S. businesses and workers.   

Hassan Tyler served as policy aide to the late Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) . 

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