Nonstop flights OKd from Phila. to Beijing; US Airways gets tentative approval for service in '09.

Philadelphia officials were overjoyed yesterday with a decision by federal regulators to tentatively award US Airways the city's first nonstop airline route to Asia, a daily round-trip to Beijing, starting in 2009.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced that US Airways, the largest carrier at Philadelphia International Airport with about 60 percent of the traffic, would be one of six airlines that could start new routes to Chinese cities next year or the year after.

"I think for US Airways to get this route to Beijing is fantastic news," said John Chen, executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. "It places Philadelphia in an excellent position for expansion of business and cultural ties with China." For the more than 44,000 Chinese who live in the region, the convenience of nonstop flights will increase travel to Asia, he said.

Mark Schweiker, chairman of the CEO Council for Growth, an affiliate of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, said the service would have "profound economic benefits" for the region. "We term it C-J-P, or companies, jobs and paychecks, at the end of this air bridge," he said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in a statement that two of the route awards were final decisions, while the other four, including US Airways' service, would be made "in the near future" after a public comment period. US Airways expects there to be little if any objection to the route award's becoming permanent, spokesman Philip Gee said.

Delta Air Lines won the right to start flights between Atlanta and Shanghai immediately. United Airlines got permission to serve San Francisco to Guangzhou in 2008. In addition to US Airways service between Philadelphia and Beijing, the regulators gave tentative approval to service by American Airlines, flying Chicago-Beijing; Continental Airlines, flying Newark-Shanghai; and Northwest Airlines, flying Detroit-Shanghai.

The multiple route awards, an unusually large number to be decided simultaneously, are the result of an agreement signed in July between the U.S. and Chinese governments opening up what had been limited nonstop flights between the countries. Because China has one of the world's fastest-growing economies, the agreement brought applications from every major U.S. airline except Southwest, which does not have international service.

US Airways has not set a date to start its service to China.

US Airways said it planned to lease at least two wide-body Airbus A340 jets, a long-range airplane that it doesn't have in its fleet now, for the daily flights between Philadelphia and Beijing. Each plane can carry 269 passengers - 227 in coach and 42 in business class.

The airline will also market service to China from its largest hub, in Charlotte, N.C., by using a single number for what will actually be two flights, one from Charlotte to Philadelphia and a second from Philadelphia to Beijing, Gee said.

US Airways chief executive Doug Parker, in a statement, thanked Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and North Carolina officials for their endorsement of the airline's application to the Transportation Department. The other airlines that won routes also praised local government and business leaders in their hub cities for supporting their applications.

Airline executives said earlier this year that if they were able to start flying between Philadelphia and China, it would boost the chances that the airline would also try to launch flights to Japan and India by leasing more long-range jets. In addition, the airline wants to start service between Philadelphia, its primary international hub, and Russia, Israel and Turkey, the officials said. The airline now flies nonstop to 111 domestic and international cities from Philadelphia.

Fritz Smith, vice president for tourism at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the agency was already working on attracting visitors from Asia to the region. In the next week or two, he said, the bureau will have versions of its Web site, www.philadelphiausa.travel, in Chinese and Japanese, similar to what it has had for several years in six European languages.

Business travelers are likely at first to be the main users of China flights, but US Airways will also need leisure travelers to fill up a 269-passenger plane, Smith said.

"Because of the size of the plane, they're going to have to put some effort into developing tourism," he said. "It's going to have to be a healthy mix of business and leisure travelers."

Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or tbelden@phillynews.com.


Loading