United wins route to China

Continental Airlines staffers distributed fortune cookies on Capitol Hill.

Northwest Airlines used a grass roots letter-writing campaign that garnered support from more than 170,000 passengers and business leaders.


American Airlines rallied support from 92 U.S. representatives, 33 U.S. senators and 16 governors. At one point, American was the odds-on favorite.

But the dark horse, Chicago-based United Airlines, snagged the coveted prize two weeks ago from the U.S. Department of Transportation - a route to China that analysts say could put upward of $250 million per year into United's coffers.


How did United pull off its coup?

Michael Whitaker, the airline's top lobbyist, blanketed Washington with radio and newspaper ads for more than two months extolling the benefits to trade and travelers if United were allowed to provide the first nonstop service linking the capitals of the U.S. and China.

United's campaign played to a favorite obsession inside the Beltway: Washington's global stature. The carrier hammered home the point that Beijing has nonstop flights to 28 other major world capitals, but not to the District of Columbia.

"We believe linking the capital cities of these two nations is critical," read one newspaper ad.

United's campaign was even supported by a Washington Post editorial.

"You've got to hand it to United. They did this masterfully," said aviation consultant Darryl Jenkins. "They were very aggressive, more aggressive than anybody I've ever seen."

Because it already offers 28 direct flights weekly to China, more than all other U.S. carriers combined, United was considered a long shot to land another of the tightly rationed routes across the Pacific.

Many had expected the route to go to American Airlines, which initially proposed flying direct to Beijing from Dallas. That planned route would have linked China with the Southwest, an underserved market that includes President Bush's home state.


Continental Airlines pitched a New York-area linkup to Shanghai, and Northwest Airlines proposed flying from Detroit to Shanghai.

"It was clearly American's to lose," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based advocacy group.

And with some missteps, that's exactly what American did.

First, it failed to reach a deal in December with its pilots that would have raised the maximum 16-hour flight time allowed under their contract by 15 minutes. Without the contract change, American's direct flight to Beijing was no longer feasible, and it added a Chicago stop.

Finally, that change was included in an amended application with the Department of Transportation, but American filed it months after the deadline, federal regulators ruled. So American was dropped as a contender.

How did Whitaker come up with his marketing idea?


The inspiration came to him during a 14-hour flight to China with Mickey Kantor, who was the top U.S. trade officer for three years during the Clinton administration.

"As we were sitting there, it occurred to me that trade is the right way to talk about China," Whitaker said.

He then approached Carla Hills, the top U.S. trade officer from 1989 to 1993, about his idea.

"She immediately said she'd support us, and she volunteered to contact her peers," Whitaker said.

So United went into battle with the support of eight former U.S. trade representatives, whose tenures stretched from the Nixon era to the current Bush administration.

Whitaker acknowledges this was the toughest of all the campaigns to gain international flying rights that he has led in his 15-year career at United.


Some observers doubt that United won mainly because its campaign was most visible to Washingtonians, including the regulators who doled out the new route.

"From a public relations standpoint, it was a terrific campaign," said Jon Ash, president of Intervistas-GA2 Consulting, a Washington-based firm. "My only point is the decision-makers don't read the Washington Post editorials to decide which application they want to grant."

So what resonated with regulators is anybody's guess.

A Transportation Department spokesman would only say, "We take into account all arguments and comments filed in the docket as part of the proceeding."

Either way, Whitaker can't rest on his laurels. Federal regulators plan to announce this year competition for another route to China. American Airlines, again, is the early favorite, presuming it can reach a deal with its pilots.

Whitaker isn't saying what's up his sleeve this time.


Julie Johnsson writes for the Chicago Tribune.