The Fight for China

American, Continental, Northwest, United

The US and Chinese governments came to an agreement back in 2004 allowing a gradual increase in air service over a six year period. Next year, there will be one additional service allowed from an airline that already flies to China. Of course, all four carriers that already fly there have submitted their bids.

China is obviously a lucrative market for US airlines. It’s heavily restricted so there isn’t as much capacity as the market could bear, and China is growing like crazy. So, you would of course expect that the airlines would salivate at additional opportunites to fly there. Let’s look at the current situation.


As you can see, there are four airlines currently flying to China from the US. Let’s look at them individually along with the websites they’ve set up to lobby for the new service.

In the past, Northwest has been happy building up its China service through its Tokyo/Narita hub, but that is starting to change. They have been flying to China for a long time, so naturally they’re going to compete for more service. This time, they’re trying for Detroit – Shanghai nonstop.

The arguments on their China website are that Detroit is the “premier international connecting airport in the United States” and that overall travel time to many of these connecting cities will be shorter than on anyone else.

American is a newcomer to China service, but of course, they want more. Currently only serving Shanghai from Chicago, American is proposing to now serve Beijing from Dallas/Ft Worth.

They’ve sent up an extensive website with many different arguments. The main one is that it’s the only service to China from the southern US so they could gather traffic from many points and give them one stop access to China for the first time. Strange to see on their map they include places like Phoenix and Boston, which clearly are better served from other places. Most of the cities that would gain their first one stop flights are in Texas and the Gulf Coast.

United is also a veteran in the China market. After years of running flights through the Tokyo/Narita hub, United has taken a more direct strategy making all flights run nonstop to the US now. Originally, United was expected to apply for San Francisco – Guangzhou flights (as they had previously), but they surprised everyone with an application for Washington/Dulles – Beijing instead.

Their website is actually a thinly-veiled third party website for the Capital-to-Capital Coalition supporting service between the two cities. They argue that DC is the largest metro area without service to China, has the largest Chinese population without nonstop China service, and should be connected to Beijing due to political ties.

These guys are another newcomer to the China market with only the Newark – Beijing route operating now. They have applied for Newark – Shanghai flights.

I can’t find a website for them, but I do have a press release detailing their arguments. They say that Shanghai has no nonstop service to the northeast US from a US carrier, the new service would connect the two financial capitals, and there is a huge Chinese population in New York.

The Verdict
What we have here is the people touting connecting opportunities (American, Northwest) vs. those extolling the benefits in the local market (United, Continental). In my opinion, the local markets should and do have a stronger argument.

There are very few cities that can’t reach China with one stop service these days. It’s true that American and Northwest can open up some cities, but these aren’t large places. The real benefit is in directly linking two cities to help encourage passenger and cargo traffic between the two.

That leaves us with United and Continental. In the end, while connecting Newark and Shanghai would be beneficial, I think United’s application will win out. There is already nonstop service between New York/JFK and Shanghai up to four days a week on China Eastern, but nobody flies between DC and China. Connecting the political capitals is smart when it’s the politicians who make the decisions, and I think United realized that. The fact that this decision would also be supported by a large Chinese community in DC as well as fantastic trade opportunities makes this even more compelling.

Now, where they’ll find an extra airplane to fly the route is an entirely different story.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

1 comment on “The Fight for China

  1. Nice summary, I haven’t seen all of of this info in one spot, even better to get some analysis on who might come out on top. In my opinion legacy carriers need the enhanced revenue from international routes to help fund their efforts to compete domestically with low cost carriers. As you indicate the battle for China should be pretty intense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier