Delta-China Derail

China changed the rules while the flight was in the air. The additional restrictions apply only to Shanghai – PVG. There were plenty of reasons to turn back not the least of which is that the crew may have to layover in Shanghai. Layover is, of course, just a polite way of saying quarantine and it’s quite probable the crew didn’t want to deal with being stuck in a quarantine hotel for two weeks in a foreign country.

Profit was probably secondary as turning back meant they burned about the same amount of money and fuel as the whole flight would’ve taken. Plus now they’re probably on the hook for issuing refunds. If the crew did time out in Korea or Shanghai it’s likely the plane (and the original crew) would’ve been stuck for an extended period of time. If you haven’t noticed Delta has been cancelling a ton of flights (as have a bunch of other US and China based airlines) recently due to lack of healthy crew.


You seem to have some additional knowledge of the details of this rule change. Do you have a source for that?

A Delta spokesperson blamed the diversion on “new procedures required at Shanghai Pudong International Airport [that] were implemented while it was en route. The new procedures require longer time on the ground than Delta is able to schedule there.”

Turning such a long flight back is an expensive decision and there’s no way it was done just to save a few pennies. The extra time required for cleaning would’ve subjected the entire crew to a two week quarantine in China creating all sorts of knock on effects. Beyond the ballooning number of crew coming down with omicron (and thus unable to fly), I can’t imagine wanting to be subjected to a surprise 14+ day quarantine.

Predictably the Chinese consulate in San Francisco is throwing a hissy fit, but what did they expect? Instituting draconian rules with no grace period is perhaps understandable (is fomite transmission more of an issue with omicron?) but is almost certainly bound to lead to problems.


I’m sorry, but that’s behind a paywall. Can you quote where it says that the new rules would have required a two-week quarantine for the crew? That information does change the perspective of things quite a bit.

Here’s a cut & paste…reporter Amber Wang:

A Chinese consulate in the United States has lodged a protest with an American airline after one of its China-bound flights returned to the US midway through the journey.
“Several China-bound flights have been delayed or canceled recently, with one plane returning to the US after flying half of the journey,” the Chinese consulate in San Francisco said in its Twitter-like WeChat account on Sunday.
“The consulate has lodged protests to the related airline.”
It also reminded travellers to China to monitor schedules for changes and ensure they had completed tests for boarding.
“The consulate will continue to urge US airlines to guarantee passengers’ legitimate rights and [travellers] not to travel to China unless necessary,” it said.
“Please choose airlines with caution to ensure smooth travel.”
The consulate did not name the airline but a 23-year-old Chinese film studies student, who would only identify herself as Runtu, said she was aboard Delta Air Lines flight DL287 to Shanghai on Wednesday when it returned to Seattle six hours into the journey.
The pilot said the aircraft had to return because “China’s entry policy has temporarily changed, and the health code of all persons on the flight cannot be authenticated”, she said.
Runtu said the flight from Seattle had already been delayed for a day. She said she was told that it was cancelled on Tuesday because there was a delay in take-off and the crew could not work overtime.
A Delta Air Lines spokeswoman said on Sunday that flight 287 from Seattle to Shanghai returned to Seattle after “new procedures required at Shanghai Pudong International Airport were implemented while it was en route” to Shanghai.
“The new procedures require longer time on the ground than Delta is able to schedule there,” the spokeswoman said, adding the carrier was working to rebook customers on alternative flights.
China has adopted a zero-tolerance policy on Covid-19, and has rolled out even more stringent Covid-19 quarantine and border control rules to counter the threat of the Omicron variant, according to new measures announced on Monday.
An employee at Shanghai Pudong International Airport said the requirements for international flights remained unchanged in the past few days, and the cancellation of the Delta flight was not related to the airport.
“Other flights arrived normally that day, even some from the US,” the staff member said.
Runtu said she was staying at a hotel arranged by the airline and was told that she might not be able to board another flight home until January 9.
She said there were a number of other Chinese students on the flight and they were concerned that re-entering the US could affect their visas.
They were also concerned about the need for further coronavirus tests to board rescheduled flights and whether their health codes to enter China would remain valid.
“I am just taking it one day at a time,” Runtu said.

And a follow-up from reporter Alyssa Chen:

The Chinese embassy in the United States has highlighted American carriers’ Omicron-enforced staff shortages, as the exact reason for a Shanghai-bound Delta Air Lines flight turning back to the US remained unclear.
Flight DL287 last Wednesday made an unscheduled return to Seattle, from where it had departed, after flying for six hours towards China.
The American carrier had said that a new policy at Shanghai Pudong Airport “requires longer time on the ground than Delta is able to schedule there”, adding that it was working to rebook customers on alternative flights.
The Chinese embassy on Tuesday suggested further context for the plane turning back.
“It has come to the embassy’s attention that recently the shortage of staff on US airlines has become a major problem, and there have been several cases of crew members reluctant to work during the pandemic,” it said. “These resulted in the cancellation of a large number of domestic and international flights in the US.”
CNN has reported that United Airlines last week had to cancel hundreds of flights because of a shortage of flight crew members caused by the surge in cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in the US.
The embassy had previously said that it had provided assistance to affected passengers and made “stern representations” to the airline.
A passenger on the flight had said that the pilot attributed the decision to turn back to a temporary change in China’s entry policy that meant passengers’ health codes – required for entering China – could not be authenticated.
The passenger said that some Chinese students on the plane were worried about the validity of their visas, test results and health codes if they had to wait further days in the US.
All China-bound travellers are required to obtain a health code from a Chinese embassy or consulate before departure. To get one, people need to present a negative Covid-19 test result and an antibody test from within the two days preceding their flight, and records of vaccination if they have been inoculated.
China has maintained stringent border restrictions for inbound travellers. Its civil aviation authority is also able to suspend a carrier from operating a particular route if a large number of passengers test positive for Covid-19.

“Legitimate rights” and “crew members reluctant to work”? China’s throwing some shade…


Thanks for that.

This part is pretty vague. It could mean that quarantine would have been required for the crew, but I imagine that, if that were the case, a lot of inbound flights to Shanghai would have been diverted.

“Able to schedule there” could mean “while complying with crew maximum working hour regulations” or it could mean something related to what they have budgeted for.

It seems to be a matter of “who you gonna believe”, Delta Airlines or the Chinese Embassy? :man_shrugging:


My suggestion is to google it. I pulled that tidbit from an aviation blog that linked to the SCMP article. The claim is that the tech stop in Seoul would let one crew do a same day ICN-PVG-ICN run and avoid the 14+ day Chinese quarantine and that the additional time required for cleaning would prevent that from working. In a broad sense visitors to China currently need to quarantine for at least 14 days, but I expect that foreign crew may be exempt if they depart the same day. The best I can tell is that there is a lot of leeway for regional governments in China to come up with more strict quarantine rules as they see fit and some. But as with all things aviation in China it’s unpredictable.

British Airways suspended flights to Hong Kong (which is China after all) due to quarantine restrictions. Covid: BA suspends Hong Kong flights amid crew quarantine - BBC News

Looks like for a while China was banning airlines who had COVID-positive pax or crew while 28+ day quarantines were being floated. Parts Of China Toughens Crew Quarantine Rules Amid Delta Variant - Simple Flying


I’m thinking they both fucked up. It’s just a matter of which one fucked up more, but without knowing the details of the actual new rules, we can only speculate.


Given that Delta’s got a long history of operating in unstable areas (e.g. Africa) and commercial aviation in China is well known to be unpredictable at the best of times I know who I’d trust.


How on earth did Delta fuck up? The rules changed mid-flight and instead of stranding passengers or crew in a foreign country they turned around. There’s no sense in continuing on to Seoul as it’s unlikely most passengers had the appropriate visas. There’s even less sense in continuing on to Shanghai and leaving your crew stranded for a few weeks when you’re already struggling to staff flights. It’s not like they can just wait it out over the Pacific Ocean.


I’m trying to get verifiable information here. How sure are you that the flight was scheduled to go to Incheon after Shanghai? Are you sure that flight crews are exempt from quarantine as long as they fly out that day (does it matter if they never cross passport control)? Was Delta’s entire plan to get around quarantine in China simply to fly out to Korea on the same day? Did Delta not have contingency plans for delays getting to Korea (weather happens too)?

I just want to determine what is known and what is speculation from aviation forums.

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Sure you do. :roll_eyes:

Here’s the latest “Preventing Spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Guidelines” from the CAAC.

If you have questions for Delta, ask them. If you’re suggesting that any airline would just leave crew and an airplane in China (or any country with such draconian COVID measures) in the middle of a massive staffing shortage I expect you’re in for a rude awakening. The current restrictions make it nearly impossible for foreign airlines to leave crew in China. You’re welcome to also google the current restrictions in place in South Korea, but the long and short of it is that they’re far less onerous than those in China.

Delta closed their crew base in Tokyo in 2019 but still partners with Korean Air for a variety of things (and both are members of SkyTeam). So with no crew based in China, the impracticality of lengthy stopovers in China, no crew based in Japan, where else would Delta go from Shanghai?

This isn’t a “both sides” moment. China changed the rules mid-flight, without warning and Delta responded in the least shitty way possible. At best you’re dramatically underestimating the cost of turning back in the middle of a trans pacific flight which comes across as severely disingenuous. All told turning back cost at least as much as completing the flight under “normal” circumstances from a fuel/crew perspective

CAAC already differentiates between crew stopovers under and over an hour (at least so far as for airplane cleaning) so yeah I’ll go out on a limb and say that a 3+ hour cleaning delay would throw a huge wrench into things. If you want to dig through all of the relevant publications and disprove that, go right ahead.

Sounds like they had no contingencies in place to prepare for a delay of any amount of time (which is something that happens even without rule changes in midair) and should not have scheduled flights to China at all given that lack of contingency planning.

Other planes were en route to Shanghai then, and they found a way to land. A sudden rule change is a shitty thing for the Chinese authorities to do, but airlines have to work around that kind of thing all the time.

But then again, neither of us knows the specific details of the rule changes and without that information, I would advise against making pronouncements rejecting any possibility of fault on Delta’s part.

Your link to the rules is dated September, you seem to have knowledge of the rules being changed. What rules were changed mid flight?

The only confirmation of that is Delta saying it but no one has said what rules changed.

I’m not defending Delta or China, it’s just that both sides are being very vague about what happened with both sides blaming each other.

There absolutely is more to this story but I suspect it has everything to do with staff shortages. Which is fine but there are a bunch of people stranded that probably should get some straight answers.

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The CAAC rules are dated October and as I’ve already pointed out regional authorities are allowed to go above and beyond. In this case Shanghai instituted additional requirements.

The only confirmation of that is Delta saying it but no one has said what rules changed.

Did you not read the BB article? Or the headline?

I’m not defending Delta or China, it’s just that both sides are being very vague about what happened with both sides blaming each other.

If you’ve actually read any of the text: in what way was Delta vague?

There absolutely is more to this story but I suspect it has everything to do with staff shortages. Which is fine but there are a bunch of people stranded that probably should get some straight answers.

How does this have anything to do with staff shortages? There is now a plane that’s out of position and crew that’s “stranded” in Seoul. If anything ad-hoc changes exacerbate staffing shortages. Claiming that Delta decided to turn an international flight around because of “staff shortages” is as ridiculous as claims that the plane was turned around so that the pilots would be home for Christmas.

I did and this is from the AP news story used as the source of the post.

It wasn’t clear what the rules are and what prompted the change

Talks are underway between the U.S. and China on possible changes to the Chinese government’s new aircraft-cleaning requirements that prompted a Delta Air Lines Inc. flight to turn back to Seattle and that could trigger the cancellation of some flights to the Asian nation. The discussions were confirmed Tuesday by a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

This wasn’t “staff shortages”. More the point:

U.S. carriers flying from the states stop first in another city, like Incheon or Seoul, South Korea, and change crews before going on to China. The procedure ensures that flight crews don’t surpass the legal number of hours they can work and allows them to avoid an overnight stay that could trigger additional Covid protocol requirements for the aircraft or crew, airline representatives said.

It’s also worth noting that Delta begged CAAC to be allowed to resume US-China flights. They’re navigating a minefield of often ad-hoc regulations, not the least of which is that positive tests could lead to a temporary ban from flying into China. Complaints about how unpredictable service into China is really ought to be directed at the Chinese authorities.

China’s in damage control mode. September should be October as CAAC formats dates as dd/mm/yyyy and the only COVID related CAAC issuance dealt with testing passengers on domestic flights.

A spokesman for Shanghai’s airport declined to comment earlier. A spokeswoman for the Civil Aviation Administration of China referred to a Covid control protocol issued in September.

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This whole conversation just keeps coming back to we don’t know what specific last-minute rule changes were made while the plane was in midair. Without that key information, we cannot really determine what happened, so why don’t we put this discussion to rest until new information becomes available?

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why don’t we put this discussion to rest until new information becomes available?

It’ll probably trickle in 5.1 days after this discussion topic was first opened.