On Thursday morning, a Delta charter flight departed Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) carrying more than 100 members of Team USA to Beijing ahead of the Olympics, which begin with the opening ceremony February 4.
Typically, Team USA athletes travel to any given Games based on their individual schedules, not all together aboard a single flight. It’s more common for members of the same national governing body (eg, US Ski & Snowboard) to travel together than for the entire US contingent.
However, due to changing Chinese government entry requirements amid Covid-19, the Beijing-bound A350-900 flights are operating as a charter, with a single flight both ways carrying most of Team USA to and from the Beijing Olympics and the Beijing Paralympics on March 4.
It was a red-carpet sendoff on Thursday as the majority of the US athletes, as well as coaches and support staff, boarded together. The plane, Delta’s largest, seats 306.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China has suspended a number of recent incoming flights from the United States. Last week, CNN Business, citing research of government announcements and published flight schedules, reported that all flights from the United States to China beginning January 19 and continuing for at least two weeks will be canceled or are likely to be suspended given Chinese aviation regulations.
There are 223 athletes on the US Olympic team roster for the Beijing Games, the second-largest contingent the US has ever sent to a Winter Games. The remaining portion of Team USA athletes will be traveling to Beijing from outside the US—many have been training in Europe.
To comply with China’s zero-Covid policy, athletes entering the country for the Games will be subjected to rigid standards.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) “playbooks” published ahead of the Games reveal that all athletes are required to register two negative PCR tests on two separate days at least 24 hours apart within 96 hours of departure—even if they are recovering from a previous Covid-19 infection for which they are no longer contagious.
Per an IOC spokesperson, exceptions could possibly be granted for athletes who are fully recovered and continue to test positive for Covid, at the discretion of Chinese authorities.
The playbook states: “If your recovery is within 30 days of your planned departure, negative test results from two COVID-19 (PCR) tests taken with a minimum 24-hour interval at any time after your recovery” must be submitted.
Any athletes who aren’t fully vaccinated must quarantine for 21 days upon arrival before entering the “closed loop” system that will prevent them from interacting with members of the general public.
On January 17, China announced it would no longer plan to sell tickets to the Olympics to individuals from mainland China after barring foreign spectators in November. Many have pointed out that banning foreign spectators, while a prudent move to prevent the spread of Covid-19, also ensures there will be limited protests of the Chinese government during the Games.
The journey across time zones to a Games is arduous in any cycle, let alone one governed by Covid measures. The night before departing, some of the US snowboarders posted Instagram stories about waiting on Covid test results and trying to make sense of thick packets of paper outlining procedures and guidelines.
But for the flight over, at least, the athletes’ every needs are being met.
Delta’s flagship A350-900 features high-protein, fresh meals created with input from Team USA nutritionists and a Team USA chef (think chicken cacciatore and herb-crusted salmon, as well as individual charcuterie platters, Greek yogurt and dried fruits), amenity kits featuring sustainable, wellness-focused products, enhanced cabin humidity that reduces the effects of jetlag and LED ambient lighting for a calming atmosphere.
This kind of chartered flight to the Games is unprecedented; no airline has ever carried this large of a US contingent to an Olympics.
Indeed, for the 131 US athletes making their debuts in these Games, the charter flight just may provide an unrealistic expectation for traveling to a Games. In his recently released autobiography Driven to Ride, Paralympic snowboarder Mike Schultz recalls being disappointed that the US team was relegated to coach on his United flight from San Francisco to Seoul in 2018—and that he upgraded himself to Economy Plus on his own dime.
“These athletes will be competing and representing the United States without family, friends or fans in the stands. So, we’re determined to make this first Team USA-only charter an unforgettable experience—one where athletes feel as special during their journey as we feel proud watching them compete,” said Tim Mapes, Delta chief marketing and communications officer.
It’s hard to imagine how Team USA would have gotten to Beijing if not on a chartered flight on a US carrier.
Beijing organizers are permitting temporary flights into the country to operate from 19 airlines—none of which are based in the US Air Canada is accommodating Team Canada on two chartered flights; Lufthansa is transporting Team Germany on four chartered flights. Austria, Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden are some of the other National Olympic Committees (NOC) who are choosing to go the charter route.
Delta, in an eight-year agreement, will serve as the official airline of Team USA on the road to Beijing 2022, Paris 2024, Milano Cortina 2026 and LA28.