OTTAWA — Beijing and Ottawa are in talks aimed at increasing flights between China and Canada, following American deals and the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, but diplomatic spats and the aviation sector's gradual pace of change could prolong the turbulence.
"It's a political problem; I don't think it's a one-day solution or that we'll have the green light right away," said Glynnis Chan, a longtime Vancouver travel agent.
She says economy-class flights to China are costing her clients three times the price they paid in 2019. "They're very frustrated," she said.
Transport Canada says the weekly number of flights between the two countries has dropped drastically, from more than 100 per week in the summer of 2019 to just 10 per week this season.
The existing Canada-China air transport agreement allows each country 76 passenger flights per week, for distribution among their respective airlines.
At the peak of the summer 2019 travel period, Transport Canada said Chinese airlines operated 76 flights to Canada per week from various cities, while Air Canada operated 35 flights per week to Beijing and Shanghai combined as the sole Canadian carrier flying to the country at that time.
But now, Air Canada operates just four flights a week to Shanghai, while Chinese airlines fly six weekly passenger flights to Canada.
The decline stems from China's strict COVID-19 rules, which up until January included caps on foreign flights and frequent quarantines and testing for visitors.
Helane Becker, an airline analyst for investment firm Cowen, says those "very onerous" rules made global airlines break up their flights, making stops in places like South Korea, Hong Kong or the Philippines to rotate crews. That way, staff could stay on the plane without entering the terminal.
"A lot of the airlines made the decision that they couldn't have their crews trapped in China for 14 days," she said. Now, with the restrictions lifted, there is still no direct flight between China and Canada.
Meanwhile, Russia has retaliated against western sanctions by banning commercial airlines from countries such as Canada and the U.S. from using its airspace. That has forced Canadian airlines to avoid the North Pole, instead taking a longer, costlier arc over Alaska and Japan.
In May and June, Washington allowed Chinese airlines more flights to the U.S., reportedly in exchange for those routes avoiding Russian airspace. Becker said this prevents Chinese airlines from undercutting American competitors through faster, cheaper flights.
Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau highlighted the issue during an Aug. 14 earnings call.
"It's difficult to have flights from Eastern Canada — Toronto and Montreal, primarily — to China without using a Russia overflight," he said. "We'd like to see that market come back. It was a strong market for us pre-pandemic."
The airline hopes to restore daily flights to Shanghai and to Beijing — both from Vancouver — in the "medium term," Air Canada's head of revenue and network planning, Mark Galardo, said on the call.
But beyond the logistics, Beijing and Ottawa have ramped-up rhetoric, particularly after months of reported allegations of Chinese meddling in Canadian elections.
In May, the Liberals expelled a Chinese diplomat over an alleged plot to intimidate a Conservative MP, and the Trudeau government has been accused of turning a blind eye to foreign interference.
China's government rejects those claims, as well as reporting by Canadian journalists and Ottawa's corporate ethics czar about alleged forced labour among China's Uyghur minority.
This month, China lifted a pandemic ban on group tours to numerous countries but kept its tourists effectively barred from group visits to Canada.
China's embassy in Ottawa said the move was due to the Trudeau government having "hyped up" the issue of foreign interference, and said an uptick in anti-Asian discrimination put Chinese citizens in Canada at risk.
Chan says her sector needs the added demand of tour groups to convince airlines to offer more flights. For now, there's a scramble for the few available flights from Vancouver to China, which used to cost just over $1,000 for an economy round-trip ticket and now often cost more than double that.
"In peak seasons the airline ticket can jump to $4,000 or $6,000 or something like that. It's just crazy," she said.
Chan, who launched her company Happy Times Travel four decades ago, said many of her competitors specializing in China risk going out of business.
"The most important issue is our two countries, how they (can) establish a good relationship, in order to get more flights back," she said.
Chan said politicians have a right to express their views, but warned the rhetoric coming from government and opposition MPs in Ottawa puts Beijing on edge.
"It doesn't bring a good harmony or peace of mind for the Chinese government to let their citizens visit Canada," Chan said.
Both countries say they're in talks to increase the number of flights, with Ottawa hinting it might seek a deal similar to the U.S. arrangements with China.
"The reopening of the Canada-China air transport market is being assessed, and Canadian officials are in discussions with Chinese counterparts on this issue," wrote Transport Canada spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu.
"Canada's objective is that air services are added to this market in a manner that will both meet passenger demand and offer an equitable and competitive operating environment for the air carriers of both countries."
The Chinese embassy in Ottawa says it's eager to get a deal signed.
"We hope that the Canadian side could work together with the Chinese side to facilitate the exchanges between our two peoples," a spokesman wrote.
"The Canadian business community, a great number of Chinese companies in Canada, scholars and students from both countries have expressed that direct flights between China and Canada are insufficient, making air tickets expensive, which affects the normal people-to-people exchanges of our two countries."
Becker said there was a lag in Canadian demand for flights to Europe, with a 2023 travel boom 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 for it will certainly be there," Becker said. "Business travellers especially, who haven't seen their clients or their factories for three years, want to get back to business."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2023.
— With files from Chris Reynolds in Montreal
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press