- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

Four U.S. communities are seeing red. And a cadre of public relations personnel, politicians and statisticians are working hard to keep it that way.

Beginning next year air travelers will have the option of flying to China on a new nonstop route from Washington, Newark, N.J., Dallas or Detroit. Four airlines — American, Continental, Northwest and United — are bidding for the service, with each proposing service from a U.S. city.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will grant only one winner and is expected to announce its decision by the end of the year.

In the meantime, the bidders are locked in a frenzied effort to convince the agency they deserve the right to establish a new link to the world’s most populous country.

“This is a highly sought-after route, and all of the airlines are taking this very seriously,” said Darryl Jenkins, an airline industry analyst who is working on American’s proposal. “This is the best and most intense [route] competition I’ve ever seen.”

United Airlines is touting its proposed route between Washington Dulles International Airport and Beijing as a “practical and symbolic connection that will facilitate face-to-face contact” between the U.S. government and its Chinese counterparts.

American Airlines says its plan for service between Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and Beijing should win because it would provide the only nonstop service to China from the southern U.S.

Continental says its Newark-Shanghai service would be superior because it would link the New York City area with Shanghai — two of the world’s largest financial centers.

And Northwest says its Detroit-Shanghai route would provide easy connecting service to 95 other U.S. airports, compared with 48 for American, 43 for United and 39 for Continental.

“It’s an interesting situation for the DOT because all four airlines have put together good proposals,” Mr. Jenkins said.

New China routes don’t open often for U.S. airlines, as the country’s communist government keeps tight control of its airspace. Only one new U.S.-China route is planned for next year.

The airlines are restricted from directly lobbying the DOT. But because each route promises a multimillion dollar boost to the communities they would serve, businesses and politicians in Washington, Newark, Dallas and Detroit are eagerly campaigning on behalf of the airlines.

In Washington, the Capital-to-Capital Coalition (www.capitaltocapital.net), a joint endeavor among United, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority — which runs Dulles and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport — and several Washington-area trade and business organizations, has been running newspaper, Internet and radio advertisements promoting United’s proposal.

The coalition says a Washington-Beijing route would generate $275 million to $333 million for the Washington region’s economy and create 3,400 to 4,100 jobs.

“The selection of the China route should be about communities, not carriers,” said coalition co-chairwoman Jane Garvey, a former administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. “The route awards are not entitlement programs — they are based on the merits of the proposed route and on the ultimate benefit to the traveling public.”

The coalition adds the Washington-Beijing route is of “paramount importance for the future of the world” because currently there is no nonstop air service between the two capitals.

American Airlines boasts support from 108 members of Congress — including 32 senators — 15 governors, dozens of chambers of commerce and almost 800 businesses from across the country.

The airline, which has a Web site (www.flytochinaonaa.com) dedicated to its bid, also says it has received 117,000 letters of support from individuals.

“This is far broader public support than other airlines have received,” said Will Ris, American’s senior vice president for government affairs.

American adds its Dallas-Beijing route would generate $180 million to the Texas economy.

Northwest says it has 168,000 signatures of support, more than any of its competitors.

The airline says it its Detroit-Shanghai service would carry 70,000 more passengers than American’s proposed route, 62,000 more passengers than Continental and 8,000 more than United.

Continental says its 110,000 letters from employees and the public backing its Newark-Shanghai proposal show that the airline has genuine communitywide support.

“It’s been primarily a grass-roots approach,” Continental spokeswoman Mary Clark said.

With the stakes so high, the airlines haven’t resisted taking a few critical shots at their competition.

Continental has accused United of having a monopoly on China service because United already operates more nonstop flights between the U.S. and China than any other domestic carrier.

“It would be a travesty to exacerbate the current United monopoly,” Ms. Clark said.

American spokesman Tim Smith called United’s Washington-area ad campaign a “gimmick.”

“We’ve been quite successful getting people to participate in [supporting] our proposal without paying for the attempt,” he said.

Northwest says flying to China from Dallas, as American proposes, is a circuitous and ineffective route, adding that the plan “is so flawed from a service and public benefits standpoint that it should be discarded from serious consideration,” according to a document.

“This process is something you take very seriously and are willing to fight over and lose a friend or two over,” Mr. Jenkins said.

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