Why A Delta Plane Returned To Seattle 6 Hours Into A China Flight

In an attempt to keep Omicron at bay, China has instated a new cleaning protocol for aircraft. Last week, this new mandate prompted a Delta Air Lines Airbus A330 to turn around and go back to Seattle after several hours in the air on its way to Shanghai. The US State Department and the Chinese Embassy are currently in talks regarding the new regulations, which Delta says rendered last week’s flight ‘operationally unviable’.

Why A Delta Plane Returned To Seattle 6 Hours Into A China Flight
A Delta Air Lines A330 turned around and went back to Seattle after over five hours in the air last week. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Long-haul flight to nowhere

The pandemic and related travel regulations have been the cause of much frustration for airlines and passengers these past couple of years. Seemingly spur-of-the-moment government decisions on testing and quarantine, including for crew, have left carriers having to cancel, reschedule or reroute flights, often with very short notice.

Anyone who has ever had to turn back to the point of origin after already spending a significant time in the air knows that it is one of the most annoying things that can occur while traveling. This is precisely what happened to a Delta Air Lines flight on December 21st. On its way from Seattle to Shanghai via Seoul Incheon, flight DL287 turned around midair. Total flight time SEA to SEA was nine hours and 29 minutes.

Early rumors suggested that the flight turned around due to a ban on incoming flights to Shanghai. The Chinese embassy in the US immediately denied this. Delta also confirmed on Tuesday that the reason for turning the plane around was the new cleaning procedures in place at Shanghai Pudong.

Flight Delta to Shanghai turned around flight path
The flight was already halfway to Seoul Incheon when the airline decided to turn it around because of China’s new plane cleaning policy. Photo: RadarBox.com

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Turnaround times hindering operations

While not revealed in detail, the new cleaning mandate for planes in China significantly increases the amount of time needed on the ground. These are part of the country’s new policies to try and stop the spread of the Omicron variant ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics set to start in less than two months.

A spokesperson for Delta confirmed to CNN that if the plane had landed in Shanghai, the new rules would have caused substantial delays. Due to the extended time needed for the turnaround, the latest cleaning procedures were not operationally viable for the airline, Delta said in the statement.

The carrier also told the Straits Times that its services to Shanghai would remain ‘very fluid’, and operate on a flight-by-flight basis. Delta is currently operating twice-weekly services from Detroit and Seattle to Shanghai Pudong.

Delta A330
Delta is currently operating twice weekly to Shanghai from Seattle and Detroit. Photo: Getty Images

American Airlines’ twice-weekly flights from would also be affected, the carrier said, although this is yet to be noticeable on flight radar services. Meanwhile, United Airlines will continue to operate its four-weekly flights to Shanghai from San Francisco and is working to comply with the new mandate.

The Chinese Embassy to the US said that the sudden decision left people with no longer valid COVID-19 test certificates, as well as expired visas to the US upon return to Seattle. It also said it is communicating with airlines to “actively understand specific technical issues and discuss solutions to avoid similar incidents from happening again.”

Meanwhile, a State Department official has said that the US is seeking changes to the new procedures as they replicate protocols already in place.

Have you ever been on a flight that had to turn back midair? Leave a comment below and share your experience.