Atlanta officials attended a Delta Air Lines Inc. press conference at Zoo Atlanta last week to voice their support for the carrier’s continuing efforts to win nonstop flights to China.

On Monday, the deadline to apply to the U.S. Department of Transportation for service to Shanghai and Guangzhou in 2008, Jim Whitehurst, Delta’s chief operating officer, announced outside the zoo’s giant panda exhibit that Delta is also seeking a non-stop route to Beijing in March 2009.

Delta’s competition for Shanghai is sparse, but the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce is “not taking anything for granted” on an issue that will have such a drastic economic impact on Atlanta, Hans Gant, senior vice president of economic development for the chamber, told GlobalAtlanta.

“On behalf of the Southeastern states we will be filing our own application on July 26 in support of the Delta route to Shanghai,” Mr. Gant said in his statement, in which he also gave his support for the newly announced Beijing flight.

The petition to the transportation department represents the interests of government and business leaders across 14 states, compiling economic statistics that show why the Southeast and Delta are the right fit for China, Mr. Gant said.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who traveled China on a trade mission with the chamber last year, also expressed the city’s support for Delta’s recent initiatives.

“When we have a direct flight, not only do we strengthen cultural and educational ties, but also our business ties,” Ms. Franklin said in her statement at the event.

Ben DeCosta, general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said that the panda exhibit was the “ideal setting” for Delta’s announcement because the animals symbolize how cultures around the world–the U.S. and China in particular–are “intertwined.”

“The Southeast is the only region without direct service to China, and that has to end,” said Mr. DeCosta, who offered the airport’s “very strongest endorsement” for both of Delta’s bids.

Near the end of the press conference, Doug Blissit, vice president for public affairs at Delta, unveiled a poster-sized “Next Gateway to China” petition featuring the paw-print signatures from the zoo’s three pandas showing their support for the Shanghai route.

After inviting city and Delta officials to sign the petition, Mr. Blissit asked Dennis Kelly, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta, to “give the pandas some extra bamboo from Delta.”

Mr. Blissit told GlobalAtlanta that he thinks with US Airways Inc. and Hawaiian Airlines Inc. bowing out of the competition for Shanghai, Delta is the “obvious choice for the 2007 designation.”

The airline’s prospects for the Beijing 2009 flight remain to be seen, however, Mr. Blissit said. The transportation department has four designations for Beijing to award next year: one for a new carrier with no service to China and three for carriers that already have existing routes.