Atlanta business leaders are hailing Delta Air Lines Inc.‘s move to bring back a nonstop flight from Atlanta to Shanghai nearly two years after suspending the route to the Chinese financial hub.
The flight began two days a week on Sunday, June 5.
Delta launched daily service in 2008 but canceled it just over a year later amid the global recession and a merger with Northwest Airlines.
Since then, Delta has continued to extend its reach into China, but not out of Atlanta. Detroit got nonstop flights to Hong Kong and Shanghai. Seattle got one to Beijing. Those who had lobbied hard for a flight linking the Southeast U.S. with China – governors, chambers of commerce and business leaders – were left wondering if it would ever return.
“(Losing the flight) definitely had an impact on our ability to do work over there,” said Ray Kimsey, president of Niles Bolton Associates, an Atlanta architecture and design firm that has worked on about 50 projects in China.
Mr. Kimsey travels to China two or three times per year, but his team of designers goes there more frequently.
Though losing direct access and Atlanta’s “gateway status” to China was frustrating, Delta’s expanded Asian route map through the Northwest merger has provided more options overall, he said.
Next month Mr. Kimsey will travel to Beijing via Seattle and back from Hong Kong via Detroit, all on Delta. Those routes didn’t exist when the Atlanta-Shanghai service first began.
But having it back will be convenient, especially for Chinese businesspeople who Mr. Kimsey believes are increasingly focused on the Southeast.
“Especially given all the reduction in flights that Delta has been looking at, we’re excited that this flight is being added back in,” he said.
Lani Wong, chair of the National Association of Chinese-Americans in Atlanta, helped organize a China business conference in Atlanta last year, which she hopes will repeat in 2012. Having an air link to Shanghai will make it much easier to attract attendees from China, she said.
Ms. Wong, who advocated heavily for the initial Shanghai route and often hosts Chinese delegations, said the flight would enable Chinese companies to use Atlanta as a gateway to Central and South America instead of traveling through Europe.
“A lot of the people we deal with have interest in going to South America,” she said.
Ms. Wong was also happy to cut out four or five hours compared to flights with connections, which can be fraught with delays, she said.
Though some travelers like going through Detroit or Tokyo to stretch their legs, Jeff Sweeney would rather just go straight to his destination.
“Once you get past 10 [hours], you know, you’re numb anyway,” said Mr. Sweeney, chief marketing officer for Atlanta-based East West Manufacturing, which helps American companies cut costs by making products in Asia.
The East West team cumulatively makes about 40 trips per year to Asia, visiting its own factories and partner facilities across China and in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Because the company travels broadly in Asia, the versatility offered by Delta’s hub in Tokyo-Narita has been more valuable than the nonstop flight to Shanghai, said Mr. Sweeney, a Delta platinum medallion member who has logged 75,000 miles this year.
Still, in addition to Hong Kong and Shenzhen, East West’s leaders almost always stop in Shanghai. East West has a motor factory in Changzhou, China, just a few hours by train from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport.
The convenience of the nonstop beats connecting in the U.S., which can be a “horrible” experience, said Mr. Sweeney.
The flight would offer even more flexibility if it ramps up to six times per week again, a real possibility given the trajectory of U.S.-China business, he added.
“It looks to me like the ties between China and the U.S. are strengthening,” Mr. Sweeney said.
Delta has been extending its reach into China. This week the carrier announced a code-share arrangement with China Eastern Airlines that enables Delta passengers to book tickets to 21 major Chinese cities through the Shanghai hub. Also, a new Detroit-Beijing nonstop flight will begin on July 1.
These efforts are part of a long-term strategy to better link the world’s two largest economies, said Vinay Dube, Delta’s senior vice president for Asia-Pacific.
“Nonstop service between these key global cities will mean more opportunities for economic development and job growth in Delta’s hometown of Atlanta as well as in Shanghai,” Mr. Dube said in a news release.
March 30, 2008 – Business to Grow as Delta Inaugural Flight Links Atlanta to China
Delta launches its first nonstop flight to China with fanfare. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, Chinese government officials and local business leaders turn out for a ceremony marking the occasion at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport‘s Concourse E. They board the flight for the state’s first official business mission to China.
April 1, 2008 – Shanghai Hotel a ‘Grand’ Setting for Delta Welcome Celebration
Chinese government officials welcome Delta at a bash celebrating the flight at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Shanghai.
Citing declining revenues, rising fuel prices and weak travel demand due to the recession and the H1N1 flu outbreak, Delta announces 10 percent cuts to international capacity. Flights from Atlanta to Seoul and Shanghai are suspended.
Sept. 20, 2010 – Commentary: No Nonstop Flight From Atlanta to Shanghai, No Problem?
On a reporting trip to China, GlobalAtlanta editor Trevor Williams flies Delta to Shanghai for the first time since the 2008 inaugural flight, examining the effectiveness of the connection through Detroit and speculating on the prospects for the Atlanta route’s return. See also: Atlanta to Shanghai: The Detroit Transfer
Nov. 16, 2010 – Delta to Restart Atlanta-Shanghai Flight
The airline announces that the flight will return, this time only twice per week, ramping up gradually based on performance. GlobalAtlanta gauges reactions from a range of local business leaders.