Transportation Dept. blocks 44 flights to China in response to country's restrictions on US carriers

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The Transportation Department issued an order on Friday blocking 44 flights from China to the U.S. after China blocked tens of U.S. to China flights due to passengers later testing positive for COVID-19 in the country.

The U.S. said that China had been instituting "circuit breaker" actions where airlines have to choose between two options if between five and nine passengers from a U.S. flight into China later test positive for COVID-19.

Four weeks after a certain number of passengers from a U.S. to China flight test positive, airlines must either suspend flights for two weeks or limit their flight capacity to 40 percent for four weeks, the order notes.

The Transportation Department noted, however, that Chinese officials have recently gone beyond their "circuit breaker" actions against three different airlines: United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines.

The order said that China had not provided airlines the opportunity to use either "circuit breaker" option if passengers on a flight were later found to test positive for COVID-19 and required flights to be canceled as a result. The order also said that airlines were not given ample notice about it either.

The Transportation Department noted that 44 flights had been suspended by China since Jan. 19.

"We find that [Civil Aviation Authority of China's] recent actions impairing the operations of Delta, American, and United as described above are adverse to the public interest and warrant proportionate remedial action by the Department," the department said.

"CAAC's unilateral actions against the named U.S. carriers are inconsistent with the provisions of the [U.S.-China Civil Air Transport Agreement] and are premised on circumstances wholly outside of the carriers' control," the order added.

The order noted that U.S. officials did not aim to further escalate the situation, but create "improved environment wherein the carriers of both parties will be able to exercise fully their bilateral rights," adding that the department would revisit its order if China adjusted its own policies.

"The policy has been applied equally to Chinese and foreign airlines in a fair, open and transparent way," a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., Liu Pengyu, said, according to The Washington Post. "It is very unreasonable for the U.S. to suspend Chinese airlines' flights on this ground. We urge the U.S. side to stop disrupting and restricting the normal passenger flights operated by Chinese airlines."

The Hill has reached out to the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., for comment.

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