With a surge of imported COVID-19 cases in China and two local infections transmitted from imported patients, calls for the suspension of all international flights have increased, but public health experts and aviation industry insiders noted that a complete shutdown is "unlikely and unnecessary."
Beijing and Shanghai, two major international hubs in China, on Tuesday each reported a locally transmitted case infected from imported patients. The news raised alarm again on loopholes in epidemic prevention and prompted some netizens to call for a thorough suspension of all international flights.
Although Chinese Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) had earlier stated international flights would not be fully suspended, Tuesday's new domestic infections have given a rise to the topic, and many countries, including Singapore, declared suspension of international flights amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
All American airlines have suspended services to China since the outbreak while other international lines including Dubai-based Emirates and Korean Air from South Korea have followed. Domestic servers including Air China and China Eastern as well as some foreign carriers are still running the business but with fewer flights.
Wang Boxue, a senior research fellow with the Aviation Industry Development Research Center of China, told the Global Times that he believes a top-down complete suspension of overseas flights is unlikely in China.
"We are still keeping the connection with the world, which reflects the spirit behind shared future of mankind," he said, noting that the decreased demand would encourage airlines to cut services as is already the case.
Current demand is driven by overseas returnees from countries hit hard by the pandemic. When this wave is over, airlines may further reduce flights, Wang said.
Experts said Chinese students and Chinese living overseas are the main international travelers coming back to China at this time, which is another reason making a suspension of international flights unlikely.
The Global Times learned that with the COVID-19 outbreak, both domestic and international airlines have reduced flights amid decreasing demand and mounting epidemic control pressure.
Outbound flights are almost empty while tickets are extremely difficult to get from places with a large number of Chinese international students, such as the UK and the US, back to China.
Yang Zhanqiu, a virologist from Wuhan University, told the Global Times on Tuesday that domestic infections from imported cases were caused by loophole in previous monitoring of international arrivals.
Cities don't have a unified standard of centralized quarantine, and Beijing has only recently raised the requirement; communities face great challenges in implementing home quarantine, Yang said, noting such loopholes could cause sporadic domestic infections.
But different cities have been tightening measures to address the problem and a complete suspension of international flights is unnecessary, he said.
Beijing on Tuesday ordered all international arrivals undergo nucleic acid testing while Shanghai direct all international flights to Pudong International Airport so that arrivals would all go through the control procedures at one place. Cities receiving diverted flights are stepping up to build testing centers and arrange quarantine places to hold the international arrivals for medical observation.
With such measures, the sporadic infections are unlikely to develop into small outbreaks, Yang said.
Some foreign airlines have already cut flights or suspended services to and from China since the outbreak, and some others reached by the Global Times followed suit after the CAAC ordered flights bound for Beijing to land in 12 other cities for passengers to go through border and epidemic inspection starting Sunday midnight.
Nine domestic airlines including Air China are also affected by the reroute order, which allows Beijing Capital International Airport to receive only 10 international flights a day.
Official data from customs shows that inbound visitors numbered 120,000 a day since the announcement of pandemic by WHO, an 80 percent decrease from last year. Among them, 20,000 came by airplane.
CAAC has not replied to Global Times' inquiry as of press time but a source in Air China told the Global Times that the company so far has no plan to shut down intentional flights, despite Beijing facing increased imported COVID-19 cases.