THE VICTORY: Delta gets route from Atlanta to Shanghai, though DOT rejects bid for nonstop flight to Beijing in 2009.
IMPACT: The Atlanta-Shanghai route, a big draw for business travelers, could generate revenues of $250 million a year.
WHAT'S NEXT: The airline will announce new routes from New York to emerging markets in Africa and the Middle East.
After two strikes, Delta Air Lines finally hit a homer to China.
A federal agency awarded rights to Delta on Tuesday to begin nonstop flights between its Atlanta hub and China's financial center, Shanghai. Delta said it plans to launch the daily service March 30.
After losing out on previous applications in 2000 and 2005, Delta was the largest, and almost the only big network carrier left that didn't have flights to China.
"Whooo!" cheered a gathering of Delta employees after U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced the agency's decision Tuesday morning at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Peters said the decision gives Delta "its long-awaited and much-deserved" access to China, whose emergence as a manufacturing giant has made it the world's third-largest economy by some measures, after the European Union and the United States.
Delta Chief Executive Richard Anderson called the decision a "watershed event" that he hopes will lead to continued expansion in China. "We are a long-term player in China," he added.
Scores of politicians, business executives and economic development officials ranging from Gov. Sonny Perdue to Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams had lobbied on Delta's behalf, arguing that access to China would boost exporters in the Southeast and draw Chinese businesses to open facilities in the region.
Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Ben DeCosta summed up the expected impact of the new route this way: "Jobs, jobs, jobs."
"This is hundreds of millions of dollars of added activity," he said.
However, Delta didn't get everything it wanted. The Department of Transportation rejected the carrier's application to also begin nonstop flights between Atlanta and Beijing in 2009.
The DOT instead tentatively awarded additional routes starting that year to American, Continental and Northwest airlines, as well as US Airways, which currently doesn't fly to China. The agency also awarded flying rights to United Airlines to begin service next year between San Francisco and Guangjou, China.
"Obviously, we would like all of the routes," Anderson said Tuesday, but he added that "we respect the DOT process."
The DOT awarded the routes under a treaty reached in May with China covering passenger and cargo carriers through 2012.
A DOT spokesman said the agency will take public comments on the tentative route awards for about three weeks before making the decision final. The awards to Delta and United are final, the agency said.
Four U.S. carriers and three Chinese carriers currently offer 14 daily flights and 11 other flights per week between China and the United States under earlier treaties, said the International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing about 240 carriers.
Delta has long coveted access to China because it is a fast-growing market and a big draw for business travelers. "China is where the money is," airline industry consultant Mike Boyd said Monday, estimating that the Atlanta-Shanghai route could generate revenues of $250 million a year for Delta.
The IATA projects that passenger growth in China will average 8 percent a year through the rest of this decade, outpacing the global growth rate of 5 percent.
"By 2010, Asia is going to be the world's largest market for aviation," said Steve Lott, an IATA spokesman.
Delta, which emerged from bankruptcy at the end of April, has pinned much of its recovery efforts on targeting such emerging international markets while cutting its domestic capacity and expanding its overseas network.