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U.S. airlines had no choice. Their customers and their crew members do not want to go to China. Why should they fly empty planes there?

One day after the U.S. State Department recommended travelers avoid travel to China because of concerns about the coronavirus, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines moved to suspend all flights between the United States and mainland China.

American Airlines’ suspension takes place immediately and will last until at least March 28, airline officials said in a statement. Delta reported it will stop flying from the United States on Feb. 3, with the last return segment from China scheduled for Feb. 5. Delta, which canceled flights through at least April 30, said it wanted to keep flying for several days so it would not strand customers.

United, the third major U.S. carrier to announce its intentions, said it will operate its last mainland China-U.S. flight on Feb. 5. United said it intends to lift its suspension on March 28, though it seems unlikely any airline would resume operations before the State Department lifts its Do Not Travel advice.

American and United said they will continue to fly to Hong Kong, though United has cut its Hong Kong schedule significantly in the past six months. Delta does not fly to Hong Kong.

United Most Affected

Among the three airlines, United is the biggest operator to mainland China, with flights from Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C. It’s also the only carrier to fly to a city other than Shanghai or Beijing, with three weekly flights from San Francisco to Chengdu.

In a note Friday, Hunter Keay, an analyst at Wolfe Research, said he expects the suspensions will affect United’s quarterly results. He said he estimates United’s unit revenue may decrease roughly 1.7 percent, year-over-year. In an earlier estimate, he predicted United’s unit revenue would increase almost 1 percent.

“United is over-indexed to China in many ways, including a high mix of corporate travel, which is likely to stay on lockdown for some time,” Keay said.

American flies to mainland China from Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles, while Delta flies from Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

“For American and Delta, the impact is less,” Keay said.

Crew Concerns

American and United said they were dropping flights because of a lack of demand, with customers skittish about flying to the source of the outbreak.

But both airlines also had to deal with their own employees. American’s pilots union, the Allied Pilots Association, on Thursday filed suit against American to urge it to stop flying to China, saying flights were too dangerous for cockpit crews. The union’s head even recommended pilots refuse to fly certain transpacific routes.

American’s flight attendant union sided with pilots, with its union head saying, “our safety is not for sale.”

The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents cabin crews at 20 airlines, including United, asked the U.S. government to order airlines to halt China flights.

Not Unexpected

The U.S. carriers join many of the world’s largest airlines, including British Airways, KLM, and Air Canada, in cutting China flights. For the most part, airlines are not making a public health argument. Instead, they have noted neither customers nor crew members want to fly to China, saying it makes no sense to fly empty aircraft with employees who do not wish to work.

Some airlines have slashed China flying for longer than others, but most cuts likely will remain until major North American and European governments lift guidance on avoiding the country.

Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of Skift Airline Weekly, said he is not surprised airlines have ceased China flying. He noted airlines have taken similar stances during previous disease outbreaks, and predicted the flights will resume at some point.

“It’s not unprecedented,” he said. “With the ebola outbreak a few years ago, several airlines (mainly European and African) suspended flights to Cote d’Ivoire and several other countries in the region.”

This story was updated with new information about United’s plans. 

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Tags: china, coronavirus, delta air lines, united airlines

Photo credit: American Airlines is cutting its flights to Mainland China for the foreseeable future. Angus Mordant / Bloomberg

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