By Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Setting the framework for U.S.-China air service for the next few years, the U.S Department of Transportation on Tuesday approved six new non-stop routes to the mainland.
Delta Air Lines (DAL) received the go-ahead to begin service in the next few months between Atlanta and Shanghai. Almost immediately, Delta announced plans to begin flying the route on March 30 with Boeing (BA) 777s. The Shanghai route will be No. 3 Delta's first route to China. It had been the largest U.S. carrier without service.
Each of the USA's six big traditional carriers — American, (AMR) Continental, (CAL) Northwest, (NWA) United (UAUA) and US Airways (LCC) are the others — were awarded a route. Flights will start on a staggered schedule through 2009.
Routes to China are tightly regulated by bilateral aviation agreements. A recently approved agreement opened up the newly awarded routes. The DOT is next scheduled to award China routes starting in 2010, when it's expected to award authority for seven daily flights over a two-year period.
The DOT approved United Airlines for daily non-stop service between its San Francisco hub and Guangzhou, which currently has no direct link to the USA on a U.S. carrier. United said service will begin next spring.
The four other routes were recommendations by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, but final agency approval is expected. Those routes involve Newark, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia in the USA, and Beijing and Shanghai in China.
Trans-Atlantic carrier MAXjet was the only airline that applied for rights to China that failed to get a route. The all-business-class carrier proposed Seattle-to-Shanghai service, seeking one of the spots reserved in the rules for a "new entrant" to the China market.
But the DOT said the best way to "maximize our limited opportunities to enhance capacity" to China came instead from US Airways' bid. Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways proposed bigger aircraft and argued that it could draw customers from that airline's broader route network.
US Airways CEO Doug Parker called the route a "historic opportunity." The carrier said it plans to fly the Philadelphia-Beijing route with a 269-seat Airbus A340 jet.
Earlier this year, United landed the rights for 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.