China on Wednesday (Jan 12) ordered the suspension of six more US flights in the coming weeks after a surge in passengers testing positive for COVID-19. This takes the number of cancellations this year to 70 in a schedule that had already been cut back drastically

The aviation regulator said it would suspend two United Airlines flights from San Francisco to Shanghai from the week of Jan 24, after seven passengers tested positive on a recent flight. 

It will also suspend four China Southern Airlines flights from Los Angeles to Guangzhou from the week of Jan 31, a move that would also affect return flights in February.

Before the latest cancellations, three US airlines and four Chinese carriers were operating about 20 flights a week between the countries, well below the figure of more than 100 per week before the pandemic.

China has been suspending routes with other countries as well. On Wednesday it suspended a total of six flights from France and Canada.

But the number of US flights being scrapped has surged since December, as infections caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant soar to record highs in the United States.

Beijing and Washington have sparred over air services since the start of the pandemic. In August, the US Department of Transportation limited four flights from Chinese carriers to 40 per cent passenger capacity for four weeks after Beijing imposed identical limits on four United Airlines flights.

China has all but shut its borders to travellers, cutting total international flights to just 200 a week, or 2 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) said in September.

What is effectively a zero-COVID policy has curbed any wide spread in China, where it first emerged two years ago, but has also made the country vulnerable to further economic disruptions as it scrambles to limit local flare-ups, analysts say.

Last week, Hong Kong, a major transport hub, announced a two-week ban on incoming flights from eight countries, including Britain and the United States.

Travellers, including overseas Chinese trying to get home, have had to scramble for expensive tickets, if they can find them at all.

On Wednesday, a search of China’s popular Trip.com, showed almost no direct flights from the United States to China were available for the rest of January.