United Airlines' bid to start a nonstop service from Los Angeles International Airport to Shanghai hit major turbulence Tuesday after the U.S. Department of Transportation said it would recommend other U.S.-China routes proposed by competing airlines.
In an eagerly waited announcement, the Transportation Department said it approved two new U.S.-China flights that would start next year and recommended four more for 2009.
As expected, Delta Air Lines Inc., which currently has no nonstop flights to China, was approved to offer flights from Atlanta to Shanghai in 2008, and United won the right to start direct flights between San Francisco and Guangzhou next spring.
But Transportation Department officials declined to recommend Chicago-based United's proposal to start an LAX-Shanghai service in 2009. The UAL Corp. subsidiary would have been the first U.S. carrier to offer a direct flight to any city in China from LAX.
Instead, the federal agency proposed Chicago-Beijing service by American Airlines, Newark, N.J.-Shanghai service by Continental Airlines, Detroit-Shanghai flights by Northwest Airlines and a Philadelphia-Beijing route by US Airways.
Transportation Department spokesman Bill Mosley said the final decision on the four flights in 2009 would be made after further public comment.
Still, the LAX-Shanghai service is expected to face an uphill battle. That's because so many flights to Shanghai already have been approved or proposed and because United has now won a total of six nonstop flights to China.
United said it was happy with winning the San Francisco-Guangzhou service but disappointed with prospects that it was unlikely to start the LAX-Shanghai flights in 2009.
"We thought it made the most compelling case," said Mike Whittaker, United's senior vice president for international and regulatory affairs. "It's the largest unserved city to China," he said of Los Angeles.
Whittaker said United might resubmit the LAX-Shanghai route for 2010, when three more flights to China are slated to be added.
Business travelers in Southern California had been hoping for the new option. All nonstop flights to China from LAX are offered by Chinese carriers, and some American travelers have complained about service, delays and other problems.
U.S. airlines currently operate only seven nonstop flights to China, the world's most populous country. Although demand is outstripping available seats, China has been protective of its domestic airlines and has limited direct flights by foreign carriers to the country. It remains one of the few countries with such restrictions.
Under a U.S.-China pact reached in May, U.S. carriers will be allowed to operate six new nonstop flights to China over the next three years: the two that were awarded for next year and four more in 2009. In all, seven airlines proposed 11 routes.