Znotins, who began at Continental in 1999, compared the opening of China with Continental's opening of Mexico in the 1990s. "Using 50-seat regional jets and similar airplanes, Continental opened up 30 new markets in Mexico" in places like Villa Hermosa and Ciudad Carmen, he said. Many of those markets grew and are now served with more frequency and with larger aircraft. In commercial aviation, opening new routes often leads to a "virtuous circle" where new service leads to increased business opportunities which leads to more service. Suddenly, "U.S. companies are saying, 'We don't mind putting our factories there,'" Znotins said.

United expects both business and leisure passengers to Chengdu. Apple ( APPL), for instance, regularly sends employees from the Bay Area, as well as from a campus in Austin, Texas, to Chengdu, a high-tech manufacturing center. About 200 of the Fortune 500 companies have a presence in the city. Today every flight from the U.S. to Chengdu is a one-stop through Beijing or Shanghai; many flights from the U.S. involve two or more stops.

The route is enabled largely by the strength of United's San Francisco hub, the premier U.S. gateway to Asia. From San Francisco, United offers about 300 daily departures to 70 domestic destinations and 20 international destinations, including eight in Asia (Chengdu would be the ninth). United has more non-stop Asia destinations from San Francisco than any other U.S. carrier has from any other U.S. airport.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

If you liked this article you might like

Why the New Apple Watch Could Be the Next 'Must Have' Gadget

The Costliest Countries to Buy an iPhone

Stocks Come Off Highs as Apple Wait Counters Boost From Tax Reform Talk

Could Biometrics Stop Hackers?

No Gains for Tech While Investors Wait for Ballyhooed Apple Event