The US Department of Transportation has suspended 44 flights operated by Chinese airlines in a spat over coronavirus cases.
The flights were set to carry passengers from Los Angeles LAX and New York JFK to five airports in China.
The DOT issued the order Friday after China had itself suspended 44 flights operated by American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and United Airlines.
The US' suspensions cover certain Air China flights from Los Angeles to Shenzhen, Air China flights from Los Angeles to Tianjin, China Eastern Airlines flights from New York JFK to Shanghai, China Southern Airlines flights from Los Angeles to Guangzhou, and Xiamen Airlines flights from Los Angeles to Xiamen. The flights were originally scheduled for between January 30 and March 29.
Carol A. Petsonk, deputy assistant secretary for Aviation and International Affairs at the DOT, wrote in the order that it was issued in response to "recent actions by Chinese authorities impairing the operating rights of three US carriers."
China's foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a regular press conference Monday that the US had "groundlessly" suspended the flights. "This act disrupts the normal operation of Chinese airlines and ignores the health and safety of Chinese and foreign travelers. It is arbitrary, unreasonable and extremely irresponsible," he said.
Chinese government regulations stipulate that if between five and nine passengers on a single inbound flight test positive for COVID-19 after arriving in China, airlines can choose between either suspending the flights for two weeks or restrict passenger capacity to 40% for a month. The restrictions start four weeks after the flight in question and the policy was introduced by Chinese authorities as part of the country's circuit-breaker lockdown.
But the DOT says that in some recent instances, American, Delta, and United weren't given the option for restricting passenger capacity, and were instead "forced to cancel passenger operations." They also weren't given a four-week advance noticed period, the DOT said.
The order listed these examples, including a notice that United received from the Civil Aviation Authority of China on January 18 which said that five passengers who had flown from San Francisco to Shanghai on January 10 had tested positive. CAAC told United that two flights on that route set to depart on February 6 and 13 would be suspended as a result, per the order.
The order added that the US government found that the measures placed "undue culpability" on air carriers for travelers who present negative test results before boarding but test positive for COVID-19 up to seven days after their arrival in China.
"US carriers, who are following all relevant Chinese regulations with respect to pre-departure and in-flight protocols, should not be penalized if passengers, post-arrival, later test positive for COVID-19," the order says.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider