United gets nod for nonstop flight from U.S. to China

The airline's Washington - to - Beijing route could be worth up to $200-million a year.

Published January 10, 2007

WASHINGTON - United Airlines won tentative approval on Tuesday to operate the first nonstop daily flight between Washington and Beijing, a 14-hour trip that links the countries' capitals as their economies become more intertwined.

The Department of Transportation's final okay would give UAL Corp.'s United a route coveted by executives and government officials and potentially worth $200-million a year.

Washington fliers who make regular trips to Beijing applauded the news.

"It means that I probably save two to three hours in my flight," said Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"Anything that gets you into the hotel ahead of the evening rush hour (in Beijing) is great."

United did not immediately say how much it would charge for the flight.

Existing fares for travel between Washington and Beijing start at less than $1,000 for economy class and can top $15,000 for first class.

If it wins final approval from the government, the Elk Grove Village, Ill., airline can begin nonstop service between Washington Dulles International Airport and Beijing Capital International Airport on March 25.

"It's overdue," said James Millward, an associate professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University. "It shortens the time and shortens the fatigue that is part of international travel."

United beat out AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, which sought to fly between Dallas/Fort Worth and Beijing; Continental Airlines Inc., which applied for service between Newark, N.J., and Shanghai; and Northwest Airlines Corp., which applied for Detroit-Shanghai service.

The Transportation Department said United's rivals have 14 days to file objections.

Airline analyst Roger King estimated that the route could bring United roughly $200-million a year in additional revenue, based on daily 16,000-mile round-trip flights.

The flights, King said, are certain to draw executives and politicians willing to pay business-class fares, which can cost as much as $10,000.

The cachet of capital-to-capital flights was probably the deciding factor in United winning the route, King said, though he and other analysts said alternate regions of the United States and China would be better served by more nonstop service.

The government said United's proposal had the potential to benefit the greatest number of passengers, since more people travel to China from the Washington metro area than any other city that does not have nonstop U.S.-China service.

United's service will offer more than 253,000 seats annually, the government said.