United Airlines announced increased passenger service to Asia on Wednesday, a day after two rivals were cleared to begin nonstop flights to China.
The expansion highlights the intensifying scrap between U.S. carriers over the burgeoning market in China and elsewhere in Asia.
Citing growing international demand, UAL Corp.'s United said it will increase flights in May between Chicago and Hong Kong, add a larger aircraft on Chicago-Beijing flights this summer and initiate service in April between Nagoya, Japan, and Taipei, Taiwan. That continues a series of international upgrades since last year.
"Demand for passenger — both business and leisure — and cargo service to the region has significantly increased over the last few months," said Mark Schwab, vice president for United's Pacific operations.
American Airlines and Continental Airlines won tentative government approval on Tuesday to begin nonstop passenger service from the United States to China, joining United and Northwest Airlines Corp.
The expansion flurry results in part from a July 2004 aviation agreement by the two nations to expand service and drop most restrictions on each other's airlines. The accord increases the numbers of passenger and cargo flights allowed by Chinese and U.S. carriers in stages over the next six years.
"China is still a small market," said Scott Hamilton, a Seattle-based airline analyst and consultant. "But over the next several decades, it's going to be obviously one of the largest economies in the world, and the air traffic is going to grow along with it."
He said United's expansion announcement appeared to be an "in-your-face" statement to larger American, which plans to begin flying from Chicago to Shanghai in April 2006.
Spokeswoman Jean Medina called the timing a coincidence, saying the announcement had been planned for a week.
United moved up by a month the starting date for increased service between Chicago and Hong Kong, to May 6 from June 7. It will add three flights a week between the two cities, making a total of 10, and up to 50 tons weekly of cargo space.
The Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based carrier said it will switch service from a Boeing 777 to the larger Boeing 747 on summer flights between Chicago and Beijing, increasing passenger capacity from 253 to 347 seats.
It also will use a 777 for the new daily service between Nagoya and Taipei, which begins April 29.
United, which has been restructuring in bankruptcy since December 2002, said last October it was cutting domestic capacity 12 percent and boosting international capacity 14 percent to focus on more profitable overseas routes _ particularly to China, Japan and Vietnam.
The world's No. 2 airline, which is the leading U.S. carrier to China, also offers daily service between San Francisco and Beijing, and to Shanghai from both San Francisco and Chicago.