New York is the nation's commercial center and the home of the United Nations. You should be able to go to New York's primary international gateway airport, Kennedy, and catch a flight on one of our fine U.S. airlines to virtually any world capital.

Thanks to Delta, we'll move a little closer to that goal next year, when the carrier proposes to inaugurate service to Tel Aviv; Cairo; Amman, Jordan; Nairobi, Kenya; Lagos, Nigeria; and a number of other points, some of which haven't been served by a U.S. carrier since the heyday of the old Pan Am rivalry with TWA.

Assuming Delta's aspirations survive the FAA's plans for easing New York's congestion woes, this would be welcome news for the Big Apple and good news for a pet theory of ours -- that not every airline route is best served through one or more network hubs.

There's a considerable body of opinion in the airline world today that the best way for Delta to get involved in serving places like Malaga, Spain, or Dakar, Senegal, is to funnel passengers through its Cincinnati and Atlanta hubs, drop them off in Paris or Amsterdam and allow its SkyTeam partners to take it from there.

There's a lot to be said for this kind of networking, but it tends to concentrate a lot of air service at places like Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth and Detroit, which are fine cities and excellent hubs, but not New York.

Delta's decision to bring point-to-point service back to some of these important city pairs is motivated, of course, by Delta's estimate of what's best for Delta, but it is refreshing to see that, in this instance, what's best for Delta is not synonymous with "what's best for Atlanta" or "what's best for SkyTeam."

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This is not to say, however, that the hub-centric view of the universe is on the wane. To the contrary, it appears to be alive and well in Washington, where the DOT seems to have consulted a well-thumbed copy of "Who's Who in Hubbing" to dole out six new airline routes to China.

Seattle and Los Angeles, for example, are major commercial centers and, for the airlines, natural and traditional gateways to Asia. Yet in the DOT's latest additions the U.S.-China route map, no new lines are being drawn for U.S. carriers at those gateways.

None of them involve New York either.

The DOT grants these route awards to serve "the public interest." We don't know whether the public interest would be better served by having a new U.S. airline route to China from Atlanta or from Los Angeles, but we strongly suspect that a route from Atlanta would better serve Delta's interest.

Since China still caps the number of flights, the DOT is rightly concerned about awarding these routes in a way that will "maximize our opportunities to enhance capacity" and increase competition.

But the DOT didn't invite applications for specific gateways. Somewhat like Priceline, it allowed the airlines to "name your own city pair."

Not surprisingly, they all volunteered to serve China from one of their hubs.

This has led to a curious, and apparently artificial, division in the market for U.S.-China air travel. No U.S. carrier serves China from Los Angeles, but all three Chinese carriers do. Likewise, the only service from Kennedy is from Air China and China Eastern.

And, needless to say, none of the Chinese carriers have ventured into Detroit or Chicago.  

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