In a signal that Chinese President XI Jinping could be prepared to loosen the country’s vice-like grip on controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and maintaining its ‘dynamic zero’ policy, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways is set to become the first international airline to resume direct flights with Beijing since the start of the pandemic.
The fact that Etihad has been chosen as the first airline outside of China to connect Beijing with the outside world should come as no surprise. The Chinese government has maintained close diplomatic ties with the rulers of Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) throughout the pandemic.
As a government-owned airline, Etihad continued to fly to Beijing in March 2020 at the outset of the pandemic even after every other international airline had pulled out of the market.
At the time, the airline said its decision to continue flying near-empty planes to the Chinese capital showed Etihad’s (and therefore the Abu Dhabi government’s) “unwavering support and commitment to our Chinese partners and the China market as a whole.”
Rather optimistically, Etihad’s chief operating officer at the time Robin Kamark said he expected load factors on flights between Abu Dhabi and Beijing to improve by Summer 2020.
Of course, that prediction turned out to be spectacularly wrong and even Etihad was forced to suspend services as China’s Communist Party focused on turning Beijing into a COVID-free fortress.
China’s commitment to keeping its seat of power virus-free succeeded during last year’s Winter Olympics but Omicron variants have proven a major challenge. President Xi has staked his reputation on his COVID Zero strategy but a change could be introduced after the National Congress of the Communist Party later this year.
Etihad could be poised to take advantage of any relaxation of restrictions as soon as they come after it relaunches flights to Beijing from June 29. Initially, the airline will operate just one flight per week on a Boeing 787-9 – a sure sign that with travel permits and tough quarantine rules still in place, Etihad isn’t expecting much demand.
“China has always been an important strategic market for Etihad and the resumption of direct flights between the two capital cities will further strengthen the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and the United Arab Emirates,” commented Martin Drew, Senior Vice President Global Sales & Cargo at Etihad Aviation Group.
The airline has been allowed to restart flights under a mandate from China’s pandemic response Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council suggesting that the decision was made at a pretty high diplomatic level.
Pilots and cabin crew operating Etihad’s flights to Beijing are likely to be subjected to invasive COVID-19 testing immediately before and after the flight from Abu Dhabi. On arrival in the Chinese capital, they may be expected to wear full-body hazmat suits before being whisked away in sealed vans to dedicated quarantine hotels where they will be locked in their rooms until their return flight.
Food and drink will be left outside their rooms by security staff working in a ‘closed loop’ to prevent the risk of infection from spreading into the community. During their stay, the crew might be required to take regular temperature tests and bleach hard surfaces whenever they touch something.
The beds are likely to be covered in plastic so that they can be easily wiped down with high-grade disinfectant between guests and bed sheets will be incinerated after being used just once.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.