New U.S. ban on Chinese airlines hurts Chinese students who were already struggling to get home

A new Department of Transportation order banning Chinese airlines from flying to and from the U.S. is an added hardship for thousands of Chinese students in the U.S. who were already struggling to get back home due to their own government’s cap on international flights.

The U.S. DOT order, posted Wednesday on a federal website, is scheduled to take effect on June 16. Several Chinese students in New York tell NBC News that previous Chinese regulations limiting the number of flights into China because of the coronavirus pandemic have already had them scrambling for weeks to find flights home with little success. There are more than 400,000 Chinese nationals at U.S. universities.

“I know the relationships between the two countries are kind of frayed on multiple fronts, but you know, it’s your students, you’ve got to take care of us,” said Jiang Li, a former New York University student who has been trying to book a flight back to China since April.

Li, 30, said he was initially angry when he first heard of the decision Wednesday morning, but is hopeful that an agreement will be reached to resume flights later this month.

Li had hoped that the summer after his graduation would be the “perfect opportunity” to spend time with his family. “I have not spent more than two weeks with my family at a time,” said Li.

Recent New York University graduate Jiang Li says he has been trying to purchase tickets back to China since April but has been unable to return. Late last month, he showed up to the Chinese Consulate in New York with a sign saying that his mom is waiting on him for dinner back home.Courtesy Jiang Li

In March, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) drastically reduced the number of international flights through its so-called “Five One” policy. Under the policy, foreign airlines can only fly one route into China and Chinese domestic airlines only one route out to any country — both with no more than one weekly flight. The aviation authority also limited the number of passengers on each plane to no more than 75 percent capacity.

The policy created a dilemma for Chinese students: finish the semester here in the U.S. and risk being stranded or immediately buy a ticket home.

“I was pretty stressed, especially when they first announced the limited flights,” said Owen, 28, who was finishing his master of business administration at NYU. “I was debating whether I should just leave the country ASAP.”

Owen, who didn’t want his last name used, chose to stay in the U.S. to finish his degree. But the decision came at a price, as tickets back to China have become increasingly hard to obtain.

According to aviation analytics firm OAG, the number of flights into China dropped from 1,340 in January to 69 in April. Before Wednesday’s announcement, the number of scheduled flights from the U.S. to China for June 2020 was about 79 flights, compared to 1,524 for June 2019.

Given the estimated 410,000 Chinese students in the U.S., according to April figures from China’s Ministry of Education, the lack of commercial airline tickets has created a market that cannot keep up with consumer demand.

In Owen’s case, he purchased multiple tickets back to China in hopes that one of the flights would not get cancelled.

“I have to admit that it was a very draining process to have to constantly checking on the available tickets,” Owen, who showed NBC News the more than $20,000 worth of transactions he made to purchase plane tickets. “You have to bet on multiple tickets to be able to go back to China.”

None of those tickets worked, but he was able to return to China through a last-minute flight on Monday.

Others have not yet been as lucky.

Jenny Zhuang, a rising senior from NYU, says she tried to get back to China by buying tickets from a friend. Those tickets didn’t pan out, but by Tuesday night, she was already packing for a flight she was hoping to obtain through a ticket transfer.

“There’s an uncertainty in it, but I still have to prepare for that,” the 21-year-old said.

CAAC has defended its policy to restrict flights as an effort to contain the risk of importing coronavirus infections.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, addressed questions about CAAC’s policy and its impact on students abroad in a May 27 press conference. He noted that the Chinese government had chartered planes to bring its citizens home and had pledged “to protect and assist Chinese nationals wherever they are.”

But China’s Foreign Ministry has also used its platform to address reports of growing tension between Chinese and U.S. transportation authorities — a reality that led to Wednesday’s U.S. ban on Chinese airlines.

“China opposes any possible U.S. disruption of or restriction on Chinese airlines’ normal passenger flight operations,” Lijian said in response to a May 22 U.S. DOT order for certain Chinese airlines to file schedules and flight details with the U.S. government.

According to the DOT, this earlier order was issued because of “the failure of the Government of the People’s Republic of China to permit U.S. carriers to exercise the full extent of their bilateral right to conduct scheduled passenger air services to China.”

At the time, the DOT had said that Delta and United Airlines had submitted applications to the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) to resume flights in June.

Delta told NBC News that its applications to CAAC have not been approved.

“We support and appreciate the U.S. government’s actions to enforce our rights and ensure fairness,” Delta said in a statement about Wednesday’s DOT order.

When asked about their CAAC applications to resume flights, United Airlines told NBC News that it is “not currently operating passenger flights between the U.S. and China.”

On Wednesday, in announcing its new restrictions on Chinese airlines, the U.S. DOT said, “[W]e continue to find that the Government of China has, over the objections of the U.S. Government, impaired the operating rights of U.S. carriers and denied U.S. air carriers the fair and equal opportunity to exercise their operating rights under the agreement.”

The department said the Chinese airline suspension is intended to “restore a competitive balance and fair and equal opportunity among U.S. and Chinese air carriers.”

CAAC and the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., also did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Department of Transportation’s decision.

Though China has continued to schedule chartered flights home for its citizens, Zhuang and Li say competition for these flights had already been fierce and does not make up for the shortage of commercial flight options.

“The government is sending way fewer flights than we actually need to get our students back,” Zhuang, who signed up for a charter flight, said.

Zhuang says she understands the reasoning behind the CAAC policy, but that for her family in Shenzhen, China, the waiting has been difficult.

“My father has experienced a mental breakdown or something,” Zhuang said. “He almost cried because he said he wants me to go back but why couldn’t I? And I had to just tell him, ‘I’m okay. I’m safe here.’”

Similarly, Li, who says he wants to be reunited with his family in Hunan Province, stood outside the Chinese Consulate in New York with a sign that read, “My mom is waiting for me for dinner at home.” Li says he is frustrated with the current situation because his citizenship alone should enable him to return.

“I love my country,” he said. “And that’s why I didn’t choose to stay here.”

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