There were two kinds of travelers at the gate waiting for Delta’s “inaugural” flight from Atlanta to Shanghai Friday — those who wondered what all the fanfare was about, and those who have seen it all before.
Talk to people in the know, particularly boosters of Georgia’s trade ties with China, and they’ll tell you that the new flight is a wonderful selling tool for the city.
But it always seems to come with that a caveat: This time we need to make sure it sticks.
The lion dances, the cupcakes at the gate, the pronouncements of Atlanta’s new linkage to the world’s second largest economy — it was all done a decade ago. Delta launched a similarly ballyhooed nonstop flight in 2008, only to take it away, briefly restart it, then suspend it until the revival this week.
What’s different this time, especially given that the flight takes off amid a stewing trade war between the U.S. and China?
If interviews at the departure gate Friday are any evidence, quite a bit.
Beyond the booming economies in both the U.S. and China, the aviation industry has shifted following a wave of consolidation, and the nature of U.S.-China engagement has evolved. Delta also has a broader Asia presence after its merger with Northwest.
Elliott Paige, who heads up air service development for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, sees evidence that airlines have refined their business models in the decade since the 2008 global financial crisis. They’re focusing more heavily on filling planes and raising their passenger yields.
“When you go to the airport and you hear the gate agent say that flights are overbooked, that’s music to airlines’ ears — that’s profitability,” he said.
The airport this time also has more tools in place to help Delta succeed. As part of an incentive program for priority routes Hartsfield-Jackson launched in 2014, the Atlanta-Shanghai flight is eligible for reimbursement of $50,000 in marketing fees. The flight is also exempt from landing fees for two years. The airport also has launched a WeChat account, using the Chinese social and messaging app with a billion-plus users to push updates to travelers about the airport’s assets and accommodations.
“We’re working with Delta as we do with all over our carriers to make sure that they’re successful,” said Mr. Paige, who is part of an airport team set to sign a new collaboration agreement with the Shanghai Airport Authority after arrival in China. He wants to see enhanced cargo service to complement the many Chinese carriers already bringing freighters into Hartsfield-Jackson.
Delta, amid a record run of profits over the last few years, also seems to be doubling down on its global connectivity. CEO Ed Bastian has said Shanghai will be an Asian hub of the future.
“I know this time it will work,” Mr. Bastian said of the flight at a Delta-hosted reception Tuesday night.
China Eastern Airlines, Delta’s local partner in China, has 70 onward destinations from Shanghai, meaning travelers no longer have to book separate tickets to go to other cities within China. Similarly, Chinese travelers can book through Atlanta to 150 destinations, including many in Latin America.
David Werner, director of state and local government relations at Delta, said the Atlanta business community requested the Shanghai route more than any other.
“This flight is part of a broader story of international growth for Delta. With our core strength in domestic, our future is global,” Mr. Werner said.
Filling those planes has a lot to do with sustaining a diverse base of demand that mixes business and leisure travelers.
The Georgia Department of Economic Development is using this occasion to target both, taking a 30-person delegation on the inaugural flight that will aim to drum up both investment and tourism traffic.
The group includes three tracks, with different members breaking off for various functions throughout the trip. In addition to Shanghai, the group will visit the city of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province. The provincial governor just last week visited Gwinnett County with a group from the Shaanxi China Council for the Promotion of International Trade.
After Xi’an, the delegation will head back to Wuxi (a city two hours’ drive from Shanghai) before coming back to Georgia.
They will visit prospective investors in all three cities, according to a copy of their itinerary provided by the department.
While the state doesn’t make the identities of prospects public, the schedule does reveal some visits with major Chinese firms and organizations, including Shanghai-based real-estate giant Greenland Group, the Xi’an CCPIT and the Xi’an Department of Commerce.
One part of the delegation will also visit the Shanghai sales office of a Georgia company, Dalton-based Textile Rubber and Chemical Co. Inc. TTRC has a factory in northern Jiangsu province making additives for latex and flooring adhesives, asphalt modifiers and other products.
Also joining the trip are state legislators looking to assist in the department’s efforts.
State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, chairman of the Senate rules committee, said engaging with China’s “huge market” is paramount for Georgia.
His district is home to Roper, an appliance manufacturer that came with GE when the latter’s appliance division was bought by China’s Haier for $5.4 billion. Some locals have worried in the wake of the Chinese acquisition about the fate of a Lafayette, Ga., plant that employs upwards of 1,600 people.
On the trade front, however, Mr. Mullis said he hadn’t heard much local concern about a trade war with China that seems to be heating up as President Donald Trump threatened Thursday to impose tariffs on all $500 billion in Chinese imports.
“I think Donald Trump’s just trying to make a deal. If everybody would be cool, he’d bring them down to give us free trade or at least something comparable, so I’m confident in that regard,” Mr. Mullis told Global Atlanta as he waited to board the Delta flight.
State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, had a different take, telling a Chinese journalist that Hall County’s many internationally based companies are a bit rattled by the president’s protectionist stances.
“We’ve heard their concerns over time, and now we’re hearing their concerns even more,” he said, urging greater understanding with China to improve trade relations. Both state senators are traveling as part of the Georgia delegation, along with state Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville.
One sector largely unscathed so far by tough talk on trade seems to be tourism, and Georgia considers spending by foreigners to be a major export.
Chinese are among the top spenders when traveling abroad, and Kevin Langston, Georgia’s deputy commissioner for tourism, said the profile of the typical Chinese traveler is changing. They’re now skewing younger and tend to come more as individuals rather than predominately in groups as in the past.
“We’re getting many more Chinese now that rent a car, drive, are comfortable in English, are a little more adventuresome in the restaurants they’ll try and are getting outside the hub cities,” Mr. Langston said.
A nonstop flight is the single key tour operators in China have suggested for winning more Chinese travel business, he said. The direct link is not only a time-saver; it’s a branding boost.
“We’re very excited about the flight, the potential that it holds, and we plan to help (Delta) fill the plane,” Mr. Langston added before boarding.
Perhaps the best evidence that the flight could work this time came from those travelers who didn’t know what all the hullaballoo was about.
Neeraj Tandon lives in St. Louis and often flies through Chicago when he heads overseas on manufacturing business.
This time, headed to Thailand, for vacation with his wife and two teenagers, he selected Delta all the way to Shanghai, where he’ll take China Eastern to Bangkok. He didn’t know it was the inaugural Shanghai flight until arrival, but he believes the route will draw more travelers from the Midwest through Atlanta.
“This probably would pull a lot of people away from Chicago, I would think,” he told Global Atlanta.
Mark Single, who works in metro Atlanta for Ricoh, the Japanese copier company, was headed to China for an annual company convention focused on thermal products like the paper used in receipts.
An assistant at his company booked the travel, so he didn’t know what all the fuss was about at gate F8 in the international terminal (selected because of the number’s auspicious associations in Chinese culture.)
That said, Mr. Single said he’s glad he doesn’t have to worry about finding a new gate and changing planes at a different airport. He’ll head to Japan for meetings after stopping in China. Coming home, it’ll be nonstop on Delta from Tokyo.
“Nonstop is always my preference. Then again, I’ve never been on a 15-hour flight before.”