Delta Air Lines ( DALRQ) got an early start in the race for a 2008 China route, filing on Friday for the right to fly between Atlanta and Shanghai.

Delta is the early favorite to win the route, since it is the only U.S. carrier with a strong international presence that lacks a China flight. Additionally, Atlanta is the world's busiest airport, with 1,000 daily departures to 243 destinations.

If the Department of Transportation approves the request, daily service would begin March 25, 2008, aboard a Boeing 777 with two-class configuration.

"Delta's new flights to Shanghai would fill a critical void in air travel today -- the lack of service between the Southeastern United States and China and the lack of U.S. carrier service between the Eastern U.S. and Shanghai -- by providing improved access for customers in more than 130 destinations across the United States," said Delta CEO Gerald Grinstein, in a prepared statement.

Ten days ago, Transportation Department tentatively awarded a 2007 China flight to United ( UAUA), which would fly between Beijing and Washington's Dulles International Airport starting March 25.

The department rejected bids by American ( AMR), Continental ( CAL) and Northwest ( NWACQ). Delta did not apply because the 2007 route was not available to new entrant carriers.

Under the treaty agreement between the two countries, seven daily frequencies are available each year in 2008, 2009 and 2010. U.S. carriers hope Chinese officials will agree to accelerate the schedule after talks Jan. 30-31 in Beijing.

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