Delta lines up support for China route; After losing out in 2000 and again in 2005, state and regional officials start lobbying early in what CEO Gerald Grinstein labels 'a political process.'

June 15, 2007

Snubbed in two earlier competitions to win direct flights to China, Delta Air Lines is lining up regional support this time around.

Gov. Sonny Perdue helped push Delta's bid for the flights Thursday by sending a joint letter with eight other state governors to the federal agency that will choose the next U.S. carrier to fly to China.

The letter is also signed by the governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, West Virginia and Tennessee. The governor of U.S. possession Puerto Rico also signed.

Delta, the biggest major carrier without direct flights to China, hopes to begin service to China's financial capital next March if it wins the competition for flying rights. The carrier expects the U.S. Department of Transportation to award the route authority this fall.

The letter to U.S. Transportation Department Secretary Mary Peters "sends a clear message of regional support for Delta's bid," Perdue said at a Thursday press conference in his office. "Atlanta is the perfect location for this route."

The letter, which was actually signed in early May, comes as other airlines also begin to drum up support for their China route campaigns. Delta has been left out of previous DOT awards of China route rights and badly wants a victory in this round. International expansion has been a linchpin of its recent restructuring.

Calling the route decision "a political process," Delta Chief Executive Gerald Grinstein said the carrier is ramping up its campaign earlier this time. "I thought we should have gotten it last time," he said.

Delta first sought a route between New York and Beijing in 2000.

In its second attempt in 2005, for direct flights between Atlanta and Beijing, Delta argued that the fast-growing Southeast was the most populous region of the United States without nonstop flights to one of the world's fastest-growing economies. However, American and Continental outmaneuvered Delta, winning rights to begin flights from Chicago and Newark, N.J., respectively. Grinstein said Delta's bid was partly hobbled because it initially didn't expect to have the long-range jets available to meet the DOT's deadline to begin service.

Delta filed its latest route application in January, even though the DOT has yet to officially open the competition. US Airways and Hawaiian have also filed applications. Neither flies to China now. Most other network carriers have said they also want to expand service to China.

Delta hopes the odds are in its favor this time, partly because the DOT is expected to earmark the next award for an airline without a China route. Also, Delta has long-range Boeing 777s scheduled for delivery in time for the proposed route.

Delta has also been busy cultivating support among city, state and federal politicians and business groups. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce has set up a special committee to support Delta's China bid, staffed by a former Delta executive.

"We're not taking any chances this time," said Sam Williams, president of the chamber. "This is a pre-emptive campaign."

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