United requests delay for China flights

The latest turbulence in the airline industry will havecompanies grounding routes that have not even taken off yet.

United Airlines has asked the U.S. Department of Transportation for permission to delay its daily roundtrip flights from San Francisco International Airport to Guangzhou, China, which were scheduled to begin June 18 and June 20. In its request, United said it would instead like to launch the service before June 30, 2009.

United cited the same factors that have caused several popular airlines to hike ticket prices, reduce the number of free luggage or even cease operations: skyrocketing jet fuel costs and the slumping U.S. economy.

The move could lead to other airlines delaying launch dates of new service, said San Francisco-based industry analyst Henry Harteveldt with Forrester Research.

Jet Airways has already delayed its SFO to Mumbai route from May 5 until at least June 14. That, however, was done for administrative reasons and was not related to fuel costs, the airline said.

Emirates Airlines will also launch flights to Dubai in the coming months. Airport spokeswoman Kandace Bender said she is not worried about Jet Airways or Emirates Airlines delaying the start of the new flights.

SFO officials said that despite myriad problems facing U.S. airlines, the airport has reached an all-time high of international travel, topping a previous record set in 2000.

United paid about $72 per barrel on oil in 2007 but now pays in excess of $100 per barrel, spokesman Jeff Kovick said. That amounts to an anticipated annual fuel cost increase of $2 billion, he said.

The Department of Transportation received United’s request to delay the China route Tuesday and the public has seven days to comment before the agency decides whether to grant the delay, DOT spokesman Bill Mosley said.

Harteveldt said the DOT has to also consider China’s interest in the deal when deciding whether to grant the extension.

United flies nine routes from SFO to Asia, including Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo.

mrosenberg@examiner.com

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