Beijing and Ottawa are currently in talks to increase the number of flights between China and Canada, following US agreements and the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. But diplomatic wrangling and the gradual pace of change in the aviation sector could prolong the turmoil.
“It’s a political problem; I don’t think it’s a one-day fix or we’ll get the green light right away,” said Glynnis Chan, a longtime travel agent in Vancouver.
“The most important question is how our two countries can establish good relations in order to recover more flights,” she added.
Mme Chan says economy class flights to China cost his customers three times the price they paid in 2019.
The agent believes that her sector needs the increased demand from tour groups to convince airlines to offer more flights. For now, there’s a rush for the few flights available from Vancouver to China, which previously cost just over $1,000 for a round-trip economy class ticket and now often cost more than double that.
“In high season, the plane ticket can go up to $4,000 or $6,000 or something like that. It’s just crazy,” she said.
“Very heavy” rules
Transport Canada confirms that the weekly number of flights between the two countries has dropped significantly, from more than 100 per week in the summer of 2019 to just 10 per week this season.
The existing air transport agreement between Canada and China allows each country to operate 76 passenger flights per week, to be divided between their respective airlines.
At present, however, Air Canada operates only four flights per week to Shanghai, while Chinese airlines operate six passenger flights per week to Canada.
The decline stems from China’s strict COVID-19 rules, which until January included limits on foreign flights and frequent quarantines and testing for visitors.
Helane Becker, an airline industry analyst for investment firm Cowen, says these “very heavy-handed” rules have forced global airlines to halt flights, stopovers in countries like South Korea, Hong Kong or to the Philippines to replace their crews. This way, staff could stay on the plane without entering the terminal.
“Many airlines have decided not to leave their crews stuck in China for 14 days,” she explained. Today, with the lifting of restrictions, there are still no direct flights between China and Canada.
Mme Becker added that there was a lag in Canadian demand for flights to Europe, with a travel boom in 2023 coming a year after the continent lifted COVID-19 restrictions. She suspects Asia’s delayed reopening will lead to more flights in 2024.
“The demand will definitely be there,” she predicts. Business travelers in particular, who haven’t seen their customers or factories in three years, want to get back to work. »
The political tension that has divided Beijing and Ottawa for the past few months has also had the effect of delaying the resumption of flights at greater frequency.
In May, the Liberals expelled a Chinese diplomat for an alleged plot to intimidate a Conservative MP, and the Trudeau government was accused of turning a blind eye to foreign interference.
The Chinese government rejects these claims, as well as reporting by Canadian journalists and the Ottawa Business Ethics Officer on allegations of forced labor among China’s Uyghur minority.
This month, China lifted pandemic-imposed bans on group travel in many countries, but effectively banned its tourists from visiting groups in Canada.
The two countries say they are in talks to increase the number of flights, with Ottawa hinting it could seek a deal similar to the US with China.
“The reopening of the Canada-China air travel market is being assessed, and Canadian officials are in discussion with their Chinese counterparts on this issue,” wrote Transport Canada spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu.
The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa says it is eager to reach the signing of an agreement.
“We hope the Canadian side can work together with the Chinese side to facilitate exchanges between our two peoples,” a spokesperson wrote.