In what would be the region's first direct air service to Asia, US Airways plans to announce today that it will seek federal approval to start flying next year nonstop between Philadelphia International Airport and China.

Chief executive officer Doug Parker is expected to join Mayor Street in unveiling the plans at a City Hall news conference, airline and local officials said.

US Airways told the U.S. Department of Transportation last month that it planned to join other airlines in competing for the next available U.S.-to-China route, department spokesman Bill Mosley said yesterday.

But the airline had not said previously whether it wanted to start the service from Philadelphia or one of its other hubs, Phoenix or Charlotte, N.C.

US Airways can expect spirited competition for the route, which can be to any major city in China.

Delta Air Lines Inc. filed an application in January to fly nonstop between Atlanta and Shanghai, China. Since then, four other carriers - American Airlines, Continental Airlines Inc., Hawaiian Airlines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Corp. - also have expressed interest in having nonstop flights between one of their hub cities and China.

Delta is the only airline that specified which Chinese city it would like to serve.

Airlines usually enlist the support of local political and business leaders to lobby the Transportation Department on behalf of the carrier's hub city. Among the arguments US Airways Group Inc. can make is that Philadelphia is the nation's largest metropolitan area that does not have direct service to China.

U.S.-to-China airline routes are among the most coveted in the world, because demand is strong from business and leisure travelers, but the number of flights is limited.

Unlike domestic airline routes, international ones are governed by treaties between countries that name which airlines can serve them and how many weekly flights they can have. Under a six-year agreement with China signed in 2004, U.S. carriers will be allowed to offer 195 new flights a week, phased in over the terms of the pact.

In January, United Airlines won a battle with American, Continental and Northwest for the right to start nonstop service between Washington Dulles Airport and Beijing. United plans to start the service March 28.

US Airways would need to acquire a new long-range jet to fly between Philadelphia and China because its largest plane, the Airbus A330, does not have the range to go nonstop. Beijing, China's capital, is 6,900 miles by air from Philadelphia.

Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or