- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

United Airlines made its inaugural flight yesterday from Washington Dulles International Airport to Beijing to the applause of passengers who say more nonstop flights are needed as commerce between the nations grows.

“Flights from the United States to China are always packed,” said Matthew Alesse of Buffalo, N.Y., whose work in the medical-device industry takes him to China about four times a year.

Previously, he would fly to China through Chicago, which could present problems when bad weather caused delays.

Direct routes between the United States and China are strictly rationed by international agreement, in part because of busy airports in China and a desire to protect domestic airlines there from competition.

“China is a lucrative and growing market that is tightly restricted in numbers of flights,” said Mark Treadaway, vice president for air service development at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs Dulles and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports.

When a new slot opened up last year, airlines and airports waged what airports authority President and Chief Executive Officer James Bennett called “an old-fashioned, junkyard dog fight” to land the new route.

Northwest wanted to fly from Detroit to Shanghai. AMR Corp.’s American Airlines wanted to fly to Beijing from Dallas, and Continental Airlines Inc. touted a Newark, N.J.-to-Shanghai route.

Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the route to UAL Corp.’s United, which touted the benefits of a direct connection between the two nations’ capitals.

The flight, roughly 14 hours to Beijing and about 12 hours to Washington, is the first nonstop service between the two capitals.

Bill Zhao, a Beijing resident who returned home from business on yesterday’s flight, said it was the right decision.

“Almost everyone who comes to the United States from China, they will want to see the U.S. capital,” said Mr. Zhao, for whom the new route is also convenient because he has family in the Washington area.

Zheng Zeguang, a Chinese Embassy minister who attended special ceremonies at the airport yesterday, said the new route increases the number of weekly flights between the two countries from 105 to 119. Asked about allowing even more slots, given the intense demand, he was noncommittal.

“We are working on it,” he said.

Among the passengers were fifth-graders from a Chinese language immersion program at Potomac Elementary School.

Student Ben Ertman said he was eager to try out his Chinese in Beijing, though he admitted he was unsure whether the Chinese he learned in an academic setting would translate in real-world conversation.

“I’m kind of worried about it,” he said of his conversational skills. “But I’m excited about seeing the Terracotta warriors” — the life-size statues created more than 2,000 years ago for the tomb of China’s first emperor — “and the Great Wall.”

In previous years, students occasionally had travel difficulties when they missed their connecting flights in Chicago, said parent Eric Ertman, who was traveling with Ben and the rest of the family.

“Having the direct flight is a lot nicer,” he said.

United will use a 347-seat Boeing 747-400 on the route. Roundtrip prices cost about $1,000 for economy.

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