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Delta still hoping to restart Atlanta-Shanghai route

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said he hopes to eventually restart Atlanta-Shanghai service -- though it will likely take a while.

"We gotta get the Shanghai flight back for Atlanta. We're working on that," Bastian said during a breakfast talk at a Gwinnett Chamber event Thursday. "I'm hoping that the next year or two, that'll be my personal contribution to the community. Because Atlanta needs Shanghai. Shanghai is the capital of Asia, from my vantage point, for the future."

Delta operated Atlanta-Shanghai flights from 2008 until early 2012, but lost money on the operation.

It started with daily service, then tried cutting back to fewer flights per week in an attempt to make it work, before discontinuing service in 2009. The airline resumed the flights in 2010 with just two flights per week, but still found the route performing poorly and ended it altogether in January 2012. Instead, Delta is connecting passengers through its Detroit hub to Shanghai, and also operates flights from Los Angeles and Seattle to Shanghai.

Delta's previous CEO Richard Anderson said in 2014 he hoped to get the route back. "We really have to reconnect Atlanta to China," he said then, noting that it will be enabled by the airline's order of wide-body Airbus jets announced that year.

However, along with the challenge of operating the route profitably, there are a few barriers standing in the way.

Delta has ordered 25 Airbus A350-900 wide-body airplanes for delivery starting in mid-2017, which Bastian said "will be a perfect airplane" for the route.

But one issue is a dearth of remaining slots for U.S. airlines to operate flights from the United States to China. Delta and American Airlines have been battling over a slot to fly from Los Angeles to Beijing.

"The next step in the process [for Atlanta-Shanghai] will be getting the bilateral authorities," Bastian said. "There's one left, and it's between us and American for LA-Beijing. So once that happens then you've got to get back into another negotiation between the U.S. and Chinese authorities to open up new authorities.... So it's a process."

The question of when the Atlanta-Shanghai route would restart would depend on those future negotiations.

If and when Delta secures the right to fly the route, it aims to make it profitable with the help of its partnership with China Eastern, which has a hub in Shanghai that can link connecting passengers to Delta flights to help fill planes. Delta last year bought a stake in China Eastern as part of the expanding partnership, but Bastian says developing the relationship will take time.

"There's no reason why [Atlanta] to Shanghai won't work," Bastian said. "And it will work now that we've got China Eastern as a partner on the other side."


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Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi covers airlines and the airport.