Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue traveled with Delta on its inaugural flight to Shanghai in 2008. Photo by Trevor Williams. See more photos on Global Atlanta's Airport City site.

It has been nearly 10 years since Delta Air Lines kicked off its nonstop service to Shanghai with a trade mission led by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and a swanky banquet in the Chinese commercial center.

Now, it seems the aviation stars have aligned once again for a route that was met with initial excitement but faded away after just over a year.

Delta plans to reinstate the Atlanta-Shanghai route again beginning in July 2018, a move that business leaders and government officials say will augment their efforts to bring Chinese companies to Atlanta and Georgia. The flight requires government approval, and Delta is submitting its application today.

Lani Wong, who has been promoting Atlanta-China ties through the National Association of Chinese Americans for 36 years, said she was disappointed after lobbying for five years, only to see Delta’s 2008 Shanghai flight fade quickly. She says the new flight will provide a burst of momentum after what seemed like a lull in enthusiasm following the heady days of 2007-08.

Efforts to win a Chinese consulate waned, and some of the first wave of Chinese factories sputtered. But with a $500 million factory on tap for LaGrange, things seem to be looking up again.

“I think it’s just good timing now. Everything is growing,” Ms. Wong told Global Atlanta, conceding that Atlanta isn’t always the easiest sell, since it’s less-known than other major U.S. hubs in China.

Pressed for time, Chinese delegations often abbreviate their visits here, a fact that could change if they avoid the layover.

“With the direct flight, I’m sure that will help promote our region big-time,” Ms. Wong said.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who himself has traveled to China on business-development missions, framed the new flight in business terms, saying the link would “shorten supply chains” for Georgia companies and Chinese investors.

That is particularly true for companies like East West Manufacturing, a contract manufacturer which sources from many factories in China and has a partially owned motor plant in Changzhou close to Shanghai.

“With its joint-venture motor production facility located just a 90-minute train ride from Shanghai, it will be that much more convenient for the East West team to visit this key factory,” Jeff Sweeney, chief marketing officer, told Global Atlanta.

East West will also make use of the one-stop options through China Eastern, Delta’s codeshare partner, which offers 50-plus destinations throughout China and elsewhere in Asia. East West has wholly owned factories in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and an engineering office in Shenzhen, China.  

“This will benefit East West, and more importantly its customers, as more face-to-face visits with our Asian business units mean a more productive and efficient supply chain for everyone involved,” Mr. Sweeney said.

John Ling, managing director of Georgia’s China investment office, has told Global Atlanta in the past that a flight would enhance the state’s pitch, giving it a leg up on competitors around the South.

“If there were firm plans that Atlanta would have a direct flight to Shanghai, you bet from day one I’m going to use that to my advantage and emphasize that,” he has told Global Atlanta. 

Gwinnett County, which hosts more Chinese companies than the rest of Georgia combined, has been consistent in its Chinese outreach efforts over the years, taking annual trade missions. 

“The direct flight from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Shanghai is a crucial link in advancing our regions business relations abroad,” Nick Masino, chief economic development officer at Partnership Gwinnett, told Global Atlanta. “This long-awaited decision by Delta will greatly improve our results and competitiveness in recruiting Chinese companies and investment.”

The flight won’t begin in time to serve the China-U.S. tourism conference that Atlanta will host in September, but tourism and education links are also vital for the state’s economy.

Georgia universities host more than 6,200 Chinese students, and international visitors — among whom the Chinese tend to shell out the most — directly spent $3 billion in Georgia in 2015.

“We’re excited to welcome Delta’s Atlanta-Shanghai flight back to our city,” William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, told Global Atlanta in an emailed statement. “The Chinese market is Atlanta’s next great incremental growth opportunity, and this flight further solidifies Atlanta as a global gateway.”

The route complements Delta’s Asia outreach, with service to Tokyo and newly launched route to Seoul. Delta has Shanghai service from Detroit, Seattle and Los Angeles in the U.S.

The Atlanta route’s return wasn’t unexpected. Delta had telegraphed the move for years, most recently when new Delta CEO Ed Bastian said Shanghai would be the airline’s the “hub of the future.” Delta also has a stake in China Eastern, its Shanghai-based partner, and would like to intensify that investment.

See bonus photos from the 2008 inaugural flight launch banquet in Shanghai exclusively on Global Atlanta’s Airport City site.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...