As the coronavirus spreads across the United States, Chinese students from wealthy families are persuading their parents to pay tens of thousands of dollars for seats on private jets to get home.
The alternative, in a world of locked borders and grounded commercial planes, is 60-hour flights with multiple transit hops over the Pacific.
Jeff Gong, a lawyer in Shanghai, asked his daughter, a high school student in Wisconsin, if she wanted 180,000 yuan ($25,460) as pocket money or a ticket on a private flight home.
“My daughter begged me to get her back home … She said ‘No papa, I don’t want the money, I want to go home’,” he told Reuters.
U.S.-based Chinese students are scrambling to get home as U.S. infections top 50,000 while new cases in China – where the flu-like virus emerged in humans late last year – have fallen to zero.
The sense of urgency is further heightened by the dramatic cutback in flight capacity. On Tuesday, 3,102 out of 3,800 planned commercial flights to and from China were cancelled, according to aviation data provider VariFlight.
“(Education) agents and schools are the ones making contact on behalf of the Chinese families looking to group together to arrange a private charter, given the lack of airline flights,” said Annelies Garcia, commercial director for Private Fly, a global booking service for charter flights.
But even the window for chartered flights is closing fast, further elevating prices. Beijing has banned all chartered flights from overseas and Shanghai is expected to follow suit soon. Hong Kong and Macau have blocked transit flights.
U.S-based Air Charter Service can fly passengers from Los Angeles to Shanghai on a 14-seat Bombardier 6000 for 2.3 million yuan ($325,300), or about $23,000 for a spot.
“We have arranged a number of private jets travelling from the U.S. to China repatriating Chinese nationals with routes including New York and Boston to Shanghai, San Jose to Hong Kong and Los Angeles to Guangzhou,” said Glenn Phillips, a PR and advertising manager at Air Charter Service.
“The prices range greatly depending on the positioning of the aircraft on the dates and time requested, and the exact route.”
But even the well-heeled have to wrestle with logistics.
Air charter providers have been notified informally that private jets registered in China are not allowed to land in the United States, and those registered in the United States cannot land in China, two sources at such firms told Reuters.
“The Chinese government is reluctant to let people abroad to come back, though they cannot make it too obvious. We have received a lot of verbal guidance to restrict chartered flights these days and the door is closing rapidly,” one of them said.
Jet operators circumvent the restrictions by either getting planes from other countries to run the U.S.-China routes or arranging transfers in Tokyo, they said.
“Operators of U.S. or Chinese-registered aircraft are not permitted to land in each other’s countries at the moment, so for U.S.-China route inquiries, we are working with operators of long-range jets based elsewhere,” said Private Fly’s Garcia.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.