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Travel & Leisure

JAL uses community ties to expand Dalian routes

Japan's ties to Chinese hub help airlines navigate coronavirus travel curbs

Japan Airlines has been working closely with city officials in Dalian, China, to restart flights.   © Reuters

DALIAN, China -- Even as the pandemic depresses demand for air travel, Japan Airlines managed to resume a fourth weekly flight between Tokyo's Narita Airport and Dalian this week, with backing from the Chinese city with strong ties to Japan.

With the latest addition, Dalian now receives the largest number flights from Japan. "More flights means we can attract more customers," Akinobu Shibata, president and regional manager at JAL's Dalian office, told Nikkei. "We hope to add even more flights in the future."

The Chinese government imposed restrictions on international flights in March to prevent the coronavirus, which had spread from the city of Wuhan to the rest of the world, from flooding back in to the country. For JAL, it meant cutting back to one weekly round trip between Narita and Dalian from its usual seven.

Since then, JAL's Dalian branch has painstakingly negotiated the resumption of weekly flights, including a second round trip in July and a third in September. Compared with four round-trip flights to Dalian, Japanese carriers operate just two round trips a week between Narita and Guangzhou, and one each with Shanghai and with Qingdao.

Dalian has historically had strong economic and cultural ties to Japan, and is home to numerous Japanese corporate outposts. This connection has helped smooth out JAL's negotiations with authorities. 

Before airlines can add a new flight to or from China, they need to show that no passengers on that same route have tested positive for the coronavirus for three weeks, and receive the green light from local authorities.

"It's difficult to get approval for new Shanghai flights, since there are so many other international routes connecting the city to places like Europe and the U.S.," an industry insider said.

But city officials in Dalian "worked closely with us as a team" to convince the authorities at Liaoning Province, where the city is located, JAL's Dalian chief said.

The efforts appear to have paid off. Over 90% of available seats on flights from Dalian to Narita and roughly 70% from Narita to Dalian were filled on average so far this month, according to JAL.

For some, the Dalian route offers unique perks compared with other flights linking China and Japan. "I chose to fly into Dalian because I heard the hotels for quarantine here are comfortable," said a 45-year-old Japanese consultant based in Beijing.

China requires travelers entering from Japan to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. While many cities like Shanghai offer little support to those individuals, Dalian has instructed hotels to help quarantining individuals with food deliveries and shopping.

"We want people to be happy with their quarantine experience and have a good impression of Dalian," a city employee said.

China is eager to re-energize its aviation industry with the coronavirus outbreak largely under control within its borders. Rapport with the country's local governments could be the key for foreign airlines to take a piece of that pie. 

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