SAN FRANCISCO -- Despite United Airlines' decision to postpone its launch of San Francisco-Guangzhou, China, service, San Francisco Airport is on track for growth in international air travel in 2008.
Domestic air travel is expected to be flat this year because of the weak U.S. economy, but international travel is projected to rise by 7% or 8%, said Mike McCarron, an airport spokesman. The airport served 8.9 million international travelers last year.
United recently asked the Transportation Department to postpone its June 30 deadline to start the Guangzhou service. The carrier was to be the first U.S. carrier to fly the route on a nonstop basis.
The reason cited for the delay is the skyrocketing price of jet fuel and projections that the softening of the economy will affect business travel to Guangzhou, said United spokesman Jeff Kovick. "It was a difficult decision, but one that United made in an environment of $100-plus barrels of oil and a softening economy in which we don't anticipate as much interest in travel to Guangzhou." It was one of the few new international routes United had planned for 2008.
United has asked that the start-up deadline be pushed to June 30, 2009.
But international carriers are going ahead with plans to start or increase capacity on routes from SFO to Asia this year.
Indian carrier Jet Airways' new San Francisco-Shanghai-Mumbai service is expected to start June 14.
The daily flights were originally scheduled to launch in May but were delayed, not by the softening of economy or jet fuel prices but by regulatory processes (the Indian government must secure overfly rights in China).
The carrier is confident that the process will be complete and it can start service June 14, said Zainul Aljunid, vice president of the Americas for Jet Airways. If so, it will become the first Indian airline to fly a transpacific route.
The carrier, which started flights last year to India from Newark, New York Kennedy and Toronto, chose San Francisco as its first West Coast gateway because of the "natural link between northern California, China and India," Aljunid said.
"Not only is there a large population of ethnic Indians in Silicon Valley, but there is a great deal of business travel between the Bay area and India. And Shanghai is an ideal city because it is one of the fastest ways to get to India, and it is the commercial center of China. There is a lot of potential among these three global commercial centers."
He estimated about 65% of the carrier's business would be in the ethnic Indian market, visiting friends and relatives.
It could be the start of a boom in travel from San Francisco to India: The airport is in talks with two other Indian carriers, Air India and Kingfisher, which expressed interest in starting flights to India in the next year, said McCarron.
Jet Airways, India's largest domestic airline, with 300 aircraft, will fly a 312-seat 777 aircraft with six seats in first class, 30 in business and the rest in economy.
The challenge, Aljunid said, is to create awareness of the airline in the U.S. "We're a bigger airline than Air India but not as well known. People sometimes confuse us with JetBlue, which is our main stumbling block."
Other international air developments at SFO include Korean Air's increase to daily flights to Seoul in July, Aer Lingus' increase to daily flights to Dublin May 6 and Emirates' expected start of daily nonstops to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in October.
To contact reporter Laura Del Rosso, send e-mail to [email protected].