Air China executive on maintaining U.S. flying: 'Somebody has to do it'

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Air China executive on maintaining U.S. flying: 'Somebody has to do it'

Though U.S. carriers have suspended all service to China due to the Covid-19 virus, a few Chinese carriers continue to connect the two countries with limited schedules. One is the Chinese flag carrier Air China, which has offered no fewer than seven weekly flights to the U.S. throughout the crisis and is now seeing a temporary surge in demand as conditions worsen here and improve in China. Airlines editor Robert Silk spoke with Air China’s vice president and general manager for North America Zhihang Chi about the reasons for continuing operations as the crisis has unfolded. 

Q: How many U.S. cities were you serving when the virus hit?

A: We had San Francisco, L.A., New York, [Washington] Dulles, Newark and Houston. We dropped Newark and Houston. 

Zhihang Chi
Zhihang Chi

Q: Those were all nonstops. What about now?

A: The idea is to cover as many cities as possible, but without incurring too huge a hit. We’ve run Beijing-L.A. and then L.A.-San Francisco. On the East Coast we’ve had Beijing-JFK and then JFK-Dulles. And we’ve scheduled so that every day of the week we have one flight. From March 18 to March 31 we are back up to 40 flights per week. Specifically, LAX and JFK are all non-stops Dulles is strictly one-stop.  SFO is now a mix of one-stops via LA and nonstops. These newly added nonstop flights are likely temporary as the situation keeps changing.

Q: How has you load factor been?

A: It varies by route. The equipment we are operating is Boeing 777-300ERs, which holds about 310 people. On average our load factor is in the neighborhood of 50% to 60%. Going back to China is a whole lot better than coming here as you can imagine because Chinese nationals are banned from coming to the United States.

Q: Who are the people still flying between the U.S. and China?

A: There are carve-outs to the restrictions. U.S. citizens are still allowed to come in. And green card holders and immediate family of U.S. citizens. Going back, those are people who came here before Chinese New Year or the Gregorian New Year. They came here to vacation. Some of them have family here. And they decided to stick around here just to be safe. And now it’s time for them to go home. 

Q: Does there come a point when even that type of demand dries up?

A: Nobody has an answer to that question. But to be honest with you, we don’t even think of that question that often because we are operating at a bare minimum already. Seven is the bare minimum that we are committing to. I don’t think we are even thinking about economics. If we were thinking purely from an economic standpoint, it doesn’t make sense for us to operate these flights. 

Q: So they’re losing money?

A: We are losing money. There is not an iota of doubt. But being the flag carrier of China, somebody has to do it, quite frankly. The air links between these two very important countries can’t afford to be stopped. I don’t think there is anybody better to do that than Air China. 

Q: Why?

A: Because U.S. carriers, they will not fly. We all understand that. So it has to be a Chinese guy. In China, having the flag painted on your fuselage is a privilege rather than a legal requirement. And only one guy is authorized to do that at this point. We’re the flag carrier. So to some extent, we represent the country. This is a historic moment in a sad way. It’s our responsibility, our duty, to do it. That’s why the calculations are not economic. We’re hoping that we’re doing the right thing, and at some point the money will follow. I feel the pain, but I’m also very proud. I have been a businessman. But now I feel I’m doing something for the world. I’m doing something for the people.

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