United Airlines wants to fly from SFO to Chengdu, China on a Boeing 787

United Airlines wants to add service between San Francisco and Chengdu, China on the Boeing 787.

United Airlines wants to add service between San Francisco and Chengdu, China on the Boeing 787. Photo courtesy of United Airlines.

The world is getting smaller.

United Airlines took a major step forward toward global connectivity on Thursday, announcing that it wants to begin flights between San Francisco and Chengdu, China starting in June 2014. The route, pending government approval, would be the first nonstop flight on an American carrier from the United States to a secondary mainland Chinese city – that is, not Shanghai or Beijing. It will fly three times per week.

Of course, “secondary” is relative here, as Chengdu has more than 14 million residents in its metro area. But it’s a big deal because it’s the type of route the Boeing 787 was built for. The fuel efficient airplane can fly long distances, but it’s not as big as some of the other aircraft flying between the U.S. and China, like the 777 and 747. United 787s are configured with 219 seats.

The whole idea of the 787 is to open new markets that had not previously been financially viable. So far, with a few exceptions, that hasn’t really happened. But United’s move could portend well for the future.

Los Angeles could benefit from this change, but that’s far from a sure thing. While Los Angeles could get its share of new 787 flights to secondary cities, other airports – like San Francisco and Seattle – will be fighting for them as well. Many cities view international flights as vital for their economic well being. And for all the excitement about the Airbus A380, most aviation analysts believe smaller more efficient aircraft like the 787 and A350 are the real future of aviation.

The CAPA Center for Aviation has an excellent, if a bit wonky,  analysis of the U.S.-China market. 

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