Delta Air Lines wants to fly nonstop from the Twin Cities to Shanghai and is seeking government approval to do so.
The airline submitted a request to the U.S. Department of Transportation to begin daily nonstop service from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in June 2020, Delta announced Monday.
If approved, it would be the first nonstop route ever between Minnesota and mainland China, fulfilling Delta's long-stated commitment to providing Minneapolis-St. Paul with a direct connection there.
Both the U.S. and China limit the number of new routes that can be added by carriers from the other nation. Some U.S. carriers are not currently using the flight privileges granted to them and Delta is asking federal regulators to transfer those rights to it.
Earlier this summer, American Airlines announced it would end nonstop service between Chicago and Beijing and between Chicago and Shanghai this month, citing the financial losses it was suffering on those routes. Hawaiian Airlines also suspended its Honolulu-Beijing route this month.
Delta currently operates nonstop service to Shanghai's Pudong International Airport from its U.S. hubs in Seattle, Los Angeles, Detroit and its hometown, Atlanta.
The airline also must receive approval from the Chinese government. Delta has a close partnership with Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines, in which it owns a nearly 4 percent stake. Delta executives said that relationship will help build its case with Chinese authorities.
Transborder air travel has been liberalized by the creation of open skies agreements, which create an international policy framework meant to encourage free-market competition. The U.S. and China do not have an open skies agreement, however. Airline travel between the two nations is regulated by a treaty that, in part, limits the reach of U.S. airlines into China and vice versa.
"Any [new air service] between the U.S. and China is a multistep process," said Morgan Durrant, spokesman for Delta. "If we are successful, which we are highly confident we will be, we will get the route on the schedule and start selling tickets."
The announcement comes just months after Delta unveiled plans for a nonstop flight between MSP and Seoul, South Korea, starting in April 2019. Delta also flies a daily nonstop between MSP and Tokyo's Haneda airport. No other airlines fly nonstop to Asia from MSP.
"We are honored to be proposing the first-ever nonstop flight between Minneapolis-St. Paul and China as we continue to expand across the Pacific," Ed Bastian, Delta's chief executive, said in a statement.
Shanghai is the largest Asian market without nonstop service from MSP and the Minnesota business community has long campaigned for better direct access to it.
"Direct service to China would be a tremendous benefit to the Minnesota business and hospitality communities," said Brian Ryks, chief executive of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which operates MSP. "By seeking federal approval to fly the route, Delta is once again reaffirming its ongoing commitment to the Twin Cities and creating opportunities for people and businesses throughout the region."
The route results from Delta's increasing stabilization in Asia following a period of competitive setbacks.
Delta inherited a large hub at Tokyo's Narita International Airport when it merged with Northwest Airlines a decade ago. But that operation turned from an asset to a liability as nonstop service between China and the U.S. grew, said Seth Kaplan, editor of Airline Weekly and author of "Glory Lost and Found: How Delta Climbed from Despair to Dominance in the Post-9/11 Era."
"The need for a Tokyo connection withered, and once Haneda (Tokyo's downtown airport) opened, people didn't want to fly to Narita where Delta had a huge hub," Kaplan said.
United Airlines has the largest network in Asia among U.S. carriers, but Delta is "in a much better spot than they were a few years ago," he said. Delta recently secured a joint venture agreement with Korean Air that gives it a solid foothold in Seoul with its vast array of destinations. And the partnership with China Eastern is "about as close as a U.S. airline can get to a Chinese airline" without an open skies agreement between governments, Kaplan said.
While Beijing is a highly sought-after destination, it is a crowded airport and very difficult for airlines to receive access for new flights there. China Eastern's hub in Shanghai means all customers on Delta flights there can have access to 70 destinations across China through connections while passengers entering the U.S. through MSP can connect directly to more than 100 U.S. cities.
Delta believes it can succeed on an MSP-Shanghai route despite its competitors' difficulties on several U.S.-Shanghai routes.
"Do I think Minneapolis to Shanghai is going to print money from day one? No, but as the more profitable airline, it does have the luxury of thinking long-term," Kaplan said. "If they think they'll lose some money the first year it takes to get the route going, they have the ability where American may not."
The route would be flown on an Airbus A350, Delta's newest aircraft that has 306 seats, including 32 Delta One suites — private areas with full-size doors and flatbed seats. The flight would likely take between 14 and 15 hours to Shanghai, with the jet stream shaving off a couple of hours on the flight to Minnesota from Shanghai.