A Pioneering Spirit: United to Make History with San Francisco-Chengdu, China Route

By Paul Riegler on 9 June 2014
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When United Flight 9 to Chengdu, China departs San Francisco International Airport on Monday, it will mark the joining of two cities, two countries, and two continents in a way that has never been done before.

Today, airlines add new service between city pairs on a weekly basis, but these are typically routes that have been flown before and are not exactly breaking new ground, unlike the way it was in the early days of commercial aviation, when almost every new route was considered a pioneering one.

Opening a previously unflown route today, however, is a very rare event.

United Airlines is making history by launching the first-ever service from the North American continent to Chengdu, China’s fourth largest city.  The start of service also marks the first time that a U.S. airline will fly from the United States to China beyond Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.  In case these two factors are not enough, United is operating the flight with a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a plane that embodies the latest technology in commercial aviation.


United’s dominance in the region goes back to its 1985 $750 million purchase of Pan American World Airways’ Pacific Division.  The sale included 18 jetliners and landing rights in 13 cities in Asia and the South Pacific.  At the time of the deal, United only served Tokyo and Hong Kong, and those destinations only from Seattle.  With the Pan Am acquisition in place, United quickly added flights from gateways in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, to Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand.

The first-ever transpacific flight took place in 1934 and, not surprisingly, was operated by Pan Am.  It was followed by transpacific service to Manila in the Philippines via Hawaii, Midway Island, Wake Island, and Guam, and this service was later extended to Macau and Hong Kong.  Both routes were operated using Martin 130 China Clipper flying boats.  Non-stop service on these routes became possible only after the advent of the jet age in the 1950s.


Even before it was launched, airlines began announcing plans for a variety of routes that truly embodied the dream in Dreamliner as well as its underlying mission, that of connecting cities that heretofore could not be served with earlier model aircraft.

Chengdu is emblematic of the kind of ambitious route that United and others are pursuing.  It has never been connected via non-stop service to the U.S. before, and the pairing of the cities is ideal.

The capital of the Sichuan province in southwest China, Chengdu boasts a population of over 14 million, and is economically one of the nation’s fastest growing cities.  Today, the city is a high-tech hub, and almost 200 of the Fortune 500 companies operate there.  Chengdu is also well known as the natural habitat of the giant panda, and Sichuan cuisine is beloved around the world.  To get there, up until now, travelers connected in Beijing or Shanghai.


Today, United offers non-stop service to Beijing from Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.; non-stop service to Shanghai from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco; and non-stop service to Hong Kong from Chicago, Guam, Ho Chi Minh City, New York, San Francisco, and Singapore.

With the addition of Dreamliner service to Chengdu, United is following in the footsteps of Pan Am and demonstrating to the world that the spirit of exploration and innovation in aviation is alive and well.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

Accura News

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