United Airlines is seeking authority to launch a second flight between Newark and Shanghai in 2020, challenging duelling proposals from both American Airlines and Delta Air Lines.
The Star Alliance carrier plans to offer the second daily flight, which would allow it to offer morning and afternoon departures from both cities, with an up to 292-seat Boeing 777-200 from June 2020, it says late on 2 November.
The move pits Chicago-based United against Delta for the final seven unallocated weekly China frequencies available to US carriers for a new flight to Shanghai from Minneapolis/St Paul, and American's request to keep 14 frequencies dormant for a year after suspending flights to both Beijing and Shanghai from Chicago O'Hare in October. The frequencies in question are for service to zone one cities Beijing, Guangzhou or Shanghai.
In its application, United says the US Department of Transportation, which manages the US-China frequencies, can approve both its and Atlanta-based Delta's applications with the existing pool if it denies American dormancy for its 14 weekly flights.
"American’s [strategic] choices should not result in it being able to effectively warehouse these frequencies from others until it is ready to make use of them," says United in its application citing the Oneworld Alliance carrier's shift towards closer network alignment with China Southern Airlines and Japan Airlines (JAL) among reasons for the network change.
Fort Worth, Texas-based American sought the dormancy waiver in October, asking the DOT for authority to suspend both Chicago routes for a year until "such time the market becomes more favourable".
Air service between China and the USA is governed by a 2007 bilateral agreement that sets caps on the number of flights carriers from each country can operate. Service to zone one is the most limited - and sought after - with more frequencies available for flights to zone two cities like Hangzhou, and unlimited service to zone three cities like Chengdu.
US carriers are using all of their available zone one frequencies, save the seven sought by Delta and United, and the 14 held by American that it wants to keep dormant. There are another seven frequencies available specifically for flights to Guangzhou, which no US carrier serves.
United is the largest US carrier in the China-US market with a 17.5% share of capacity in 2018, FlightGlobal schedules data shows. American has a 10% share and Delta a 9.4% share.
In October, Delta asked the DOT for a new proceeding for all 21 of the China frequencies in question, including the seven available and the 14 held by American, if another airline sought the frequencies that it wants for its proposed Minneapolis flight.
"This approach would be consistent with Department policy, maximise benefits to the travelling public, and enhance the overall competitive environment in the US-China market," the SkyTeam Alliance carrier said.
United's application represents a "competing application", as Delta puts it, and will likely prompt a response from American before the DOT rules on how it will proceed.
The interest in China follows a period of weak demand in the market. Both Delta and United reported yield pressure over the past few years, a period when Chinese carriers added flights at a rapid clip as they used all of their available frequencies.
United has suspended service to Hangzhou and Xi'an from San Francisco, and to Shanghai from Guam over the past year.
Hawaiian Airlines suspended its flights between Honolulu and Beijing in October, saying the market was developing slower than expected.
United has a strategic partnership with Beijing-based Air China, and Delta a similar pact with Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines. Delta also owns a small equity stake in its Chinese partner.