United wants to fly between Washington and Beijing, whereas Continental has applied for Newark to Shanghai.

Two weeks ago, American sought to add a Chicago stop on its westbound flight, though the return would be nonstop from Beijing to Dallas. The return segment falls within the pilot contract limit because of prevailing tailwinds.

In its application, Northwest emphasized the possibility of a split award. "Awarding to two carriers would provide that much more competition," said Andrea Fischer Newman, Northwest's senior vice president for government affairs, in an interview. "You would have two flying the route and give people more competition and more cities."

While all the carriers say they would prefer seven frequencies, Newman noted that Continental and United stipulated in their applications that they would accept less. As for Northwest, "We want service, and we want it out of Detroit, but since there are only seven frequencies, we would take fewer in order to get an award," she said.

Another question also hangs over the proceedings: Why aren't regulators considering a route between China and the world's busiest airport in Atlanta? The answer is that under the current bilateral agreement, revised in 2004, only the four U.S. carriers that had China routes by 2006 were given the right to apply for 2007 frequencies.

Delta ( DALRQ), which operates the world's biggest hub in Atlanta, has no China service, making it unique among the five U.S. airlines with broad international operations. Delta has said it intends to apply for a route in 2008, when a new entrant carrier is permitted under the 2004 bilateral deal.

Currently, there are just 12 nonstop routes between the U.S. and China. Chinese airlines fly half, and U.S. carriers fly half. United flies from both Chicago and San Francisco to Beijing and Shanghai. American flies from Chicago to Shanghai, and Continental flies from Newark to Beijing. Chinese carriers serve Los Angeles, San Francisco and Newark.

Northwest has 21 weekly frequencies to China, all routed through its Tokyo hub.

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