A senior Air China executive lamented declining air passenger numbers between the US and China and a lack of progress in addressing bilateral civil aviation issues.

Between 2010 and 2017, the number of Chinese visitors to the US ballooned from 735,000 to 3.2 million, driven by a rapidly expanding Chinese middle class and a move by former US President Barack Obama to streamline applications for foreign tourist visas from affluent Chinese visitors. Total US spending by Chinese visitors grew from just over $5 billion in 2010 to over $35 billion in 2017.

During those years, “a lot of money was spent. We bought a lot of airplanes and a lot of goodwill was generated,” Air China VP-North America Zhihang Chi said during a Nov. 7 speech at the International Aviation Club of Washington DC. “I don’t think anybody in this audience would dispute that this was a success story for both countries and an example of successful policymaking.” 

The growth trend reversed in 2018 for the first time in more than a decade, when total passengers from China to the US dropped to 3 million. While some of the decline was the result of a slowing Chinese economy and depreciating yuan, Chi said the US-China trade war and souring of bilateral relations have contributed to the drop-off in air travel between the two countries.

“On the bilateral front, there has been nothing but standstill. ... The US government issued 42% fewer non-immigrant visas to Chinese travelers last year from 2017 levels,” Chi said. “We also see more and more Chinese visitors being subjected to secondary screening at US airports.”

Chi noted that “zone one” frequencies between the US and China “are basically maxed out,” adding that travelers from many US cities can only connect to their Chinese destinations of choice through Air China’s Beijing hub. The US-China bilateral air transport agreement limits the number of frequencies between the US and China zone one cities, which include Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzou. 

Chi closed out his talk on an optimistic note, saying the two countries appear to be inching closer toward a partial resolution in their ongoing trade dispute, adding that “US and Chinese carriers still have much to learn from each other.”

“There have been some hiccups, but right now, both countries want to hit the reset button and talk things over. … My belief is issues will probably be resolved, because I can’t envision a situation whereby the two countries are decoupled from each other,” he said. “There are many benefits for the US and China to work together ... and there is no doubt that we continue to look up to our US airlines for their best practices and leadership.”

Ben Goldstein, Ben.Goldstein@aviationweek.com