Delta, United airlines get first crack at new China routes

ByBen Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY
September 25, 2007, 4:34 PM

WASHINGTON -- Delta Air Lines received approval today from the Department of Transportation to begin non-stop service between Atlanta and Shanghai.

The service is one of six new daily round-trip routes granted today by the U.S. DOT. Each of the USA's six traditional carriers — American, Continental, Northwest, United and US Airways are the others — were awarded one of the six routes.

The route awarded to Delta was eligible to start as early as Aug. 1 of this year, though the DOT will give the Atlanta-based carrier until March 2008 to begin its service.

Almost immediately, Delta announced plans to begin flying the route on March 30 with Boeing 777 aircraft. The Shanghai route will be the carrier's first route to China. It had been the largest U.S. carrier without service to that country.

Routes to China are tightly regulated by bi-lateral aviation agreements between the USA and China. A recently approved aviation agreement between the nations opened up the equivalent of six new daily routes to U.S. carriers.

All six of the USA's so-called legacy carriers received one of the new routes awarded for flights to China. The rights to operate the latest batch of flights are staggered to begin between now and 2009.

Following Delta, United Airlines has been granted the authority to begin daily non-stop service between its San Francisco hub and Guangzhou, China.

United will be permitted to begin that route in March 2008. The airline was the sole applicant for the route, which was designated specifically for non-stop service to Guangzhou. United will be the first U.S. carrier to offer daily non-stop flights to Guangzhou, according to the DOT.

Four other four Chinese routes were recommended by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. They were: US Airways for daily non-stop service between Philadelphia and Beijing; Continental for daily non-stop service between Newark, N.J., and Shanghai; American for daily non-stop service Chicago O'Hare and Beijing; and Northwest for daily non-stop service between Detroit and Shanghai. Those carriers' rights for the China routes become available starting March 25, 2009. The recommendations are subject to a public-review period before becoming final, but the agency's decisions typically are not reversed.

MAXjet was the only airline that applied for rights to China and did not receive at least one route. The all-business-class carrier proposed Seattle-to-Shanghai service, seeking one of the spots reserved for a "new-entrant carrier."

In its decision, the DOT acknowledged that MAXjet had "an innovative proposal that would benefit travelers opting to take advantage of its low-fare business-class service." But the agency ultimately said it thought the best way to "maximize our limited opportunities to enhance capacity" to China came instead from US Airways' bid, which called for bigger aircraft that could draw customers from that airline's broader route network.

The selection of Delta and US Airways for routes to China gave those airlines their first-ever route authorities for non-stop service to the world's most-populous nation.

In its bid for China service, Delta touted access to its Atlanta hub – service that would give the world's busiest airport and the southeastern United States its first non-stop connection to China.

"Delta's new flights to China will fill a critical void in air travel today by providing the 65 million residents of the Southeast with direct access to the world's fastest growing economy," Delta CEO Richard Anderson said in a press release.

As for US Airways' bid for Philadelphia-Beijing service, the carrier noted its Philadelphia hub had been one of largest U.S. markets without non-stop service to China.

US Airways CEO Doug Parker called the route "an historic opportunity for our airline's employees and our customers." The carrier said it plans to fly the route with a 269-seat Airbus A340 jet.

Earlier this year, United landed the rights to begin non-stop "capital to capital" service between Washington Dulles and Beijing in one of the most-competitive bidding efforts ever over the tightly controlled flight slots to China. For the latest six China routes up for U.S. airlines, the DOT had previously announced that it would award all six routes simultaneously.

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