US Airways Eases off China Competition, Won't Pursue Routes Until 2009

Jun. 27--The competition between US Airways and Delta for flights to China is all but over, with a US Airways executive saying Tuesday that the airline doesn't plan to pursue China routes until 2009.

And flights to China from Charlotte's airport -- US Airways' busiest hub -- are likely many years off, said Andrew Nocella, a senior vice president.

Even if US Airways wanted to fly from Charlotte to China or other parts of Asia, Charlotte/Douglas International Airport doesn't have a runway that could accommodate such takeoffs.

The airport is building a 9,000-foot runway, but that will allow only more takeoffs and landings, not fully loaded large jets bound for Asia, said Jerry Orr, the airport's aviation director.

US Airways' focus on 2009 strongly suggests that Delta, which has aggressively pursued China routes, will get U.S. Department of Transportation approval to begin Atlanta-Shanghai flights, possibly by year's end.

US Airways officials announced earlier this year that they wanted to start China service. The right to fly from the U.S. to China is tightly regulated by a treaty between the countries.

The U.S. is set to award a new route this year. US Airways does not fly to Asia; Delta doesn't have a nonstop flight to China.

Nocella, who oversees US Airways' routes and schedules, said the airline wants more time to acquire aircraft that can fly to China from Philadelphia, the airline's major international gateway.

"China is a big endeavor for our company," Nocella said, "and we want to do it right."

US Airways' approach is in stark contrast to Delta, which has launched a Web site touting its China bid and citing support from 10 state governors, a dozen members of Congress and three Chinese professional organizations.

Transportation officials could decide on China flights for 2007, 2008 and 2009 this summer, Nocella said. If Delta -- the largest U.S. carrier without nonstop China service -- gets the first set of flights, US Airways could be a favorite for a route in 2009.

Last week, US Airways announced an order of 92 aircraft from Airbus, including 22 widebody A350 jets that could fly from the U.S. to China. Those planes, however, won't be delivered until 2014 at the earliest.

To get to China before then, US Airways could ask Airbus to deliver five new A340 jets in 2009, Nocella said, but the airline more likely will try to buy existing jets from another airline.

US Airways explored buying A340s from Air Canada earlier this year, but Nocella said Tuesday that those jets no longer are available.

2014 at earliest

Even if US Airways gets the planes and permission to fly to China, flights wouldn't depart from Charlotte for a long time -- at least until 2014, Nocella said.

Philadelphia is a larger market, and it's closer to other big Northeast cities. New York and Washington already have China flights, but Nocella said there's room for more in the Northeast.

In addition, he said, the A340 would be too large a plane for the Charlotte market. The planned A350-800, with about 250 seats, would be an appropriate size.

Orr said a longer runway -- up to 12,000 feet -- has been discussed.

"Both Japan and China are potential markets for us," Orr said, "but they're still a ways out." Nonstop cargo flights to Asia could come before passenger service, he said.

For flights to Asia, Orr said, the airport likely would extend its 10,000-foot existing runway.

But with no current plans to do so nor any desire by US Airways to add China routes in Charlotte, such a project doesn't seem imminent.

"We would extend it," Orr said, "when there's a demonstrated need."


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