Bredesen joins push for nonstop flights from Atlanta to China

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Gov. Phil Bredesen and nine other governors in the Southeast are backing a bid by Delta Air Lines to offer nonstop flights from Atlanta to China.

The governors all signed a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. The Department of Transportation is considering Delta's request to begin offering nonstop service to Shanghai beginning in March.

Delta CEO Gerald Grinstein said the route is needed to serve the growing population in the Southeast as well as the region's booming trade with China.

"This letter demonstrates the strong support that this great Georgia company has among our Southeastern neighbors," Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue's said Thursday at a news conference with Grinstein.

Atlanta-based Delta is the third-largest carrier in the United States. Grinstein said that it is the only one of the large U.S. air carriers without a direct route to China. Grinstein said he expected federal officials would hold hearings over the summer and issue a decision by the fall.

The governors are all backing Perdue's push to get the Atlanta flight. Tennessee has strong ties to Asia, with former U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser having served as ambassador to China, and former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr. having served as ambassador to Japan.

Last year, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matthew Kisber traveled to Hong Kong and Beijing to participate in a trade show and meetings aimed at building economic ties between Tennessee and China.

Tennessee companies in 2005 exported more than $19 billion in goods and services to customers in other countries.

Business with China accounted for 7.4 percent of that total, ranking third among Tennessee's trading partners behind Canada and Mexico.

Bredesen wants to help expand that market even more for Tennessee companies and to mimic efforts the state has made in growing its trade relationship with Japan.

Japanese companies such as Nissan Motor Co., Bridgestone Corp. and DENSO Corp. have had a presence in Tennessee for decades, making them the largest international business group in the state with more than 40,000 employees.

In addition to Perdue, the governors who signed the letter are: Bob Riley, of Alabama; Mike Beebe, of Arkansas; Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky; Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, of Louisiana; Haley Barbour, of Mississippi; Anibal Acevedo Vila, of Puerto Rico; Mark Sanford, of South Carolina; Phil Bredesen, of Tennessee; and Joe Manchin III, of West Virginia.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)