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Disrupted flights to US delay international student return

flights to US
Students are being forced to resort to creative measures to get back to campus. Source: Romeo Gacad/AFP

International students returning to their US universities are being held back by the lack of flights to US, on top of the mounting complications in obtaining an F-1 visa in time. Students from China and India — two main source countries — are forced to find their way around these restrictions.

As a result, universities are already receiving deferral requests. This spells a potential loss for US universities, which already experienced a 16% dip in international student enrolment for the spring term. “If they defer for the semester, there’s always the concern that you’ll lose them for good,” Don Heller, vice president of operations at the University of San Francisco told NDTV.

Even students who clinch a ticket for one of the limited flights to the US are not guaranteed travel. New York University student Alicia Zhang, for example, bought a one-way ticket from Shanghai to New York for the exorbitant price of US$4,000, only to have her flight cancelled weeks later. Luckily, she was refunded and managed to get a different flight with a layover in Hong Kong for US$4,500.

flights to US

Chinese students are facing a 96% decline in seats on flights to US, compared to pre-pandemic days. Source: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP

Students with the resources to do so have been forced to buy several tickets, then wait to see which flight won’t be cancelled. Some Chinese students booked an exclusive charter flight with Cathay Pacific with the help of their parents. Others, like incoming Harvard freshman Sara Dahiya from India, took a gamble by booking a flight before getting her visa. “The process of scheduling a visa appointment, as it is, was extremely distressing, and finding and paying twice the amount for a flight right now would’ve only added to the troubles,” she shared.

Can students get visas and flights to US in time?

Chinese students are facing a 96% decline in seats on flights to US, compared to pre-pandemic days. On top of that, in early June, a US Department of State official said that while consular services are offering as many appointments as they can, there are “large visa backlogs” and they do not expect to resume full operating capacity any time soon. This is particularly true in China, where the US embassy and consulates cancelled most in-person visa appointments.

Flights to US have also become more costly. A round-trip from China to the US now costs US$2,260, which is over US$1,000 higher than the average fare in 2019: US$1,247. According to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Chris Muckensturm, this increase is expected as airlines tap into the surging student demand over the short August/September window. “Yet more capacity deployed on those routes could mitigate price increases,” he added.

flights to US

After studying remotely for months, students are ready to resume campus life. Source: Karim Jaafar

Separately, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently ruled that US student visas would not have a time limit. Though this goes a long way in making the US a more welcoming place for international students, many worry that visa delays and the scarcity of flights to the US may limit the number of students who successfully return to campus by the 2021 fall semester.

As Migration Policy Institute analyst Julia Gelatt says, “The majority of consulates are processing visas, but that doesn’t mean that they’re doing it fast enough to get the students here in time.” Public policy research group Cato Institute found that three out of four consulates are still not processing visas full time. This affects 71% of visa applicants, who will not be able to obtain their visas 120 days before their programme starts as mandated.