United said it had the backing of the California congressional delegation and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wrote a letter to Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters that said United's nonstop service would boost tourism and "pump up our state's economy."

United and Los Angeles-based business travelers argue that transportation officials should favor the L.A.-Shanghai route because of the huge trade that flows between Southern California and China.

The region has more China-bound passengers than any other U.S. metropolitan area, United said. In 2006, nearly 282,000 people, or 20% of total U.S. travelers to China, were from Southern California. Second-largest was New York, with about 15% of the total.

United also noted that the region has more Shanghai-bound passengers than any other area.

Los Angeles "has the greatest need and we think by a pretty overwhelming margin," said Mike Whittaker, United's senior vice president for international and regulatory affairs. "We have the most compelling case."

Whittaker said United's China flights were some of the more profitable ones because they were generally full, including the lucrative business and first-class sections.

In contrast, Chinese carriers offering international service cater predominantly to Chinese passengers. Those airlines often have plenty of vacancies in business and first class, making some of those routes unprofitable.

China's three largest state-owned carriers -- China Eastern, Air China and China Southern Airlines -- currently operate nonstop service between the two countries, but none of those flights is profitable, according to a report by ChinaVest Ltd., a Shanghai merchant banking advisory firm.

For China Eastern, the Los Angeles-Shanghai route isn't much of a moneymaker, said Luo Zhuping, an executive director of the company. But he doesn't blame service complaints such as those from Rice of Tyson Foods.

"The main reason is that we don't have many business guests," he said. "Most of our guests are Chinese people and our ticket prices couldn't go up."

Alex Xu, a Los Angeles businessman who is building a chain of Greentree Inn hotels in China, travels to Shanghai 10 times a year. He flies first class on China Eastern.

Service generally has been good but the airline has trouble arriving on time, Xu said.

"I would definitely consider switching to United," he said, "if there was no major delay problem."
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