DETROIT -- Four of the nation's largest airlines are turning to the Internet in an effort to gain public support as they fight for new, lucrative flights to China. And they're getting a big response.
Northwest Airlines, Continental Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines used e-mail to appeal to their frequent fliers to sign online petitions to support their case. The carriers are competing for one route that the United States and Chinese governments agreed to add.
The airlines collected more than 100,000 signatures and letters each in Internet petitions that they intend to submit to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"It's the first time that I remember where this has become a public popularity contest," said George Hamlin, a vice president at Morton Beyer & Agnew, an aviation consulting firm.
Airline experts doubt that the large numbers of signatures will determine which carrier will win the right to add flights to China, which has the world's fastest-growing economy.
The Transportation Department probably will choose the carrier whose plan benefits the most consumers, said Dawna Rhoades, an instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Each carrier says its plan is best. United and American say they would be the first to start nonstop service to China from Washington and Dallas.
Continental says it wants to be the first U.S. carrier to serve Shanghai from Newark, N.J., and Northwest says 95 cities would have relatively simple connections to Detroit that would be enough to fill a nonstop flight to Shanghai.
"When you look at the route that would benefit the single largest number of consumers, it's the Detroit route," Andrea Fischer Newman of Northwest said.
Competition and experience could factor in the decision. Word is expected by the end of the year, and the flights would start in March.