In the 1970s, the saying was: 'Only Nixon could go to China. 'Now, almost everyone can
It’s difficult to imagine these days, but there was a time in the not-too-distant past when the vast People’s Republic of China was a giant white blob on most of the world’s airline route maps. Today the air routes between North America and Greater China are clogged with new entrants and a flourishing number of destinations.
First, a little background: In 1949, when the Communists rose to power in mainland China, the global geopolitical situation was such that any kind of détente between the United States and the new Chinese leadership was practically a diplomatic impossibility. Then in 1972, President Richard Nixon, who was known as the staunchest of anti-Communist crusaders, broke through the ice of the Cold War and actually took a trip to China – a momentous meeting at the highest levels of both governments.
And the rest, as they say, is history. By 1979, diplomatic relations were restored, and a cautious dance of commercial and economic rapprochement began which continues to this day. By the beginning of 1981, Pan Am started connecting mainland destinations with the US via Tokyo, and the state-run Civil Aviation Administration of China began service to San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York over various connections. Northwest Airlines flew the first direct service to China, from Detroit to Beijing in 1996, and by 2006, there were 10 nonstop flights between the two countries serving 2 million passenger a year.
Fast-forward another decade and the growth has been nothing short of astonishing. Counting service into Hong Kong and Taiwan, nearly 60 North American-Greater China city pairs are served by carriers from both sides of the Pacific, including the three legacy US carriers and all six of the spin-offs from the original CAAC (which has stopped trying to be an airline and instead is something more akin to the US’s FAA).
The combination of more freedom of movement between China and North America, plus the added development of next generation long-haul aircraft are making these long, thin routes to Asia more lucrative, and more popular. Here’s a look at the North American airports – 17 at present and growing – that offer direct service to China.
SAN FRANCISCO – The City by the Bay is the granddaddy of air service between the US and China, having been the jumping off point to Asia for Pan Am’s legendary Clippers of the 1930s and 40s. Today thanks in no small part to United’s concentration of China routes at its SFO hub, that heritage continues with no fewer than 15 services to destinations in the region. In addition to flights to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei, SFO passengers can book direct to cities such as Qingdao, Wuhan, Chengdu and Xi’an.
LOS ANGELES – Tied with SFO at 15 China services, Los Angeles International Airport competes heavily on the Shanghai
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