At the same time, air-freight haulers such as FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. have had to ramp up operations in China to fulfill demand for medical supplies and other equipment.
The trade group that represents large U.S. carriers, Airlines for America, didn't immediately comment on the action. China's embassy in Washington also didn't immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
The department on May 22 said China had violated a bilateral agreement allowing airline service between the two countries by failing to respond to requests by Delta and United. The department accused China of unfairly blocking the carriers' attempts to resume service in that country.
The DOT on Wednesday accused the Civil Aviation Authority of China of being "unable to communicate definitively" when it will allow U.S. airlines to resume flights.
Delta originally sought to resume China flights on June 1 but has had to delay because the Chinese government hasn't approved its application. It's currently seeking to restart flights on June 11 between Detroit and Shanghai and Seattle and Shanghai, both with stops in Seoul.
"We support and appreciate the U.S. government's action to enforce our rights and ensure fairness," the Atlanta-based carrier said in a statement.
American's last China flights departed on Jan. 31. It's currently set to resume flights between Dallas-Fort Worth and Hong Kong next month, with other passenger service scheduled to restart in October. American has an average of six total daily non-stop flights to the cities of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing from Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles.
United also plans to resume three routes to China as early as this month, pending regulatory approval. That would be for service from San Francisco to Beijing and Shanghai, and between Newark, New Jersey, and Shanghai.
In early January, there had been approximately 325 weekly scheduled flights between the two countries. That fell to only 20 per week by four Chinese carriers by mid-February, according to the DOT.
Earlier this year China said in an order that airlines couldn't operate more flights than they had scheduled on March 12. However, by that time, U.S. carriers weren't flying there, making it impossible for them to resume service, the DOT charged.
China's order "effectively precludes U.S. carriers from reinstating scheduled passenger flights to and from China and operating to the full extent of their bilateral rights, while Chinese carriers are able to maintain scheduled passenger service to and from each foreign market served as of the baseline date, including the United States," the DOT said in its order.
(With assistance by Shaun Courtney.)
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