United Airlines Is Betting On China

Chicago based United Airlines is betting on China as it seeks to partner with Air China in offering flights to cities other than just Beijing and Shanghai.

United Airlines is betting on China. Photo: United Airlines

First on the list of cities that United could fly to is Guangzhou, located on the banks of the Pearl River 120 kilometres North West of Hong Kong. Regarded as being the most populous built-up urban area in mainland China, Guangzhou has a population of nearly 15 million people.

Direct flights between Guangzhou and San Francisco  could happen one day

The carrier is seriously considering flights to Guangzhou from the United States. United Airlines Managing Director of Greater China and Korea Walter Dias said while speaking in Hong Kong recently, as reported by Forbes:

“Guangzhou continues to grow and transform itself from what it was even five years ago,” Dias said. “It’s not tomorrow and it’s not next year, but at some time in the future, I would not be surprised to see us with a non-stop service from San Francisco.”

Guangzhou a booming Chinese city. Photo: Mark Finlay/Flickr

Before the global financial crisis in 2008, United Airlines had Guangzhou firmly in their sights and were toying with the idea of a direct San Francisco-Guangzhou flight. Now, 11 years later, United Airlines are once more considering a direct service to Guangzhou and other secondary cities in China.

Beijing and Shanghai have China covered

One reason United Airlines have not rushed into the second tier Chinese city market is due to the number of flights already serving Beijing, Shanghai and, to a lesser extent, Hong Kong.

Currently, United Airlines operates a ticket office in Guangzhou and offers bus transportation to Hong Kong. From here, passengers can fly non-stop to the west coast of the United States.

Beijing & Shanghai have china covered. Photo: United Airlines

Other airlines, meanwhile, offer passengers free tickets from provincial airports to Beijing and Shanghai. This allows flyers, no matter where they live in China, the opportunity to fly to the U.S.A. for the same fare they would have paid had they lived in a top tier city.

This in effect took away the incentive for any American airline to fly to new cities in mainland China. Dias alluded to this saying,

“A lot of airlines were scrambling to fill up their new flights from Beijing or Shanghai, so they were saying ‘Oh you’re in Kunming, I’ll give you a free airline ticket to Shanghai so you can fly to Los Angeles.”

A Joint Venture between United Airlines and Air China is a long way off

In the more distant future than the idea of a direct flight to Guangzhou is some kind of joint venture with Air China.

United Airlines Is Betting On China
United Airlines joint venture with Air China not to happen anytime soon. Photo: Mark Finlay/Flickr

“We would like to have a joint venture with our partner in Beijing,” Dias said, but cautioned, “I don’t think it will happen any time soon.”

The reason he was less than upbeat was that the United States only allow joint ventures with counties that participle in the Open Skies Treaty. Open Skies is a treaty that allows one nation to conduct short-notice, reconnaissance flights over the others’ territory to collect data on military forces and activities.

It’s not just Open Skies that is a stumbling block. Both United and American Airlines have also been complaining about securing slots at Beijing and Shanghai airports. The same can be said for Chinese airlines and their complaint about not being given enough terminal space in American airports.


Given the current state of play in the political arena and President Donald Trump’s words of war with China over tariffs, it’s hard to imagine that a direct flight between Guangzhou and San Francisco will happen anytime soon.

And as for a joint venture with Air China, that boat looks like a non-starter given the present political climate.

When asked by Simple Flying if they if they had any further news about new routes to China United said:

We continuously review opportunities in cities around the world to ensure we’re offering our customers the very best global route network. We have no announcements to make at this time.


Jonathan Guerin


United Airlines