By John Lyons and Wenxin Fan
HONG KONG -- Chinese authorities have detained a FedEx Corp. pilot in the southern city of Guangzhou, elevating pressure on the express shipping giant that is already in Beijing's crosshairs amid a U.S.-China trade war.
The pilot, a former U.S. Air Force pilot named Todd A. Hohn, was detained a week ago while waiting for a commercial flight to his home in Hong Kong after flying deliveries throughout Asia from the Guangzhou airport, a FedEx regional hub, people familiar with the matter say.
A lawyer for the Hohn family in Niceville, Fla., confirmed that Mr. Hohn had been detained in China.
When he was detained, Mr. Hohn was carrying nonmetallic pellets used in low-power replica air guns in a checked bag, according to the people familiar with the matter. Chinese authorities have alleged that Mr. Hohn was illegally transporting ammunition and have begun a criminal investigation, according to the people.
Like many FedEx pilots working in the region, Mr. Hohn commutes to the FedEx hub in Guangzhou from his home in Hong Kong, a city that has been rocked by pro-democracy protests for months. Border police have been checking baggage of travelers between Hong Kong and the mainland as protests have turned increasingly violent.
The detention comes as FedEx faces other investigations in China amid tense U.S.-China trade talks. Mr. Hohn was detained Sept. 12 by Chinese security officials who escorted him from a preboarding executive lounge, interviewed him at one of their facilities and retained his passport, cellphone and other communication devices, the people said.
Mr. Hohn was later moved to a hotel, and has been told he isn't allowed to leave mainland China until the investigation concludes, the people familiar with the matter said.
"Chinese authorities in Guangzhou detained and later released one of our pilots on bail after an item was found in his luggage prior to a commercial flight," Federal Express said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal. "We are working with the appropriate authorities to gain a better understanding of the facts."
Reached briefly at his hotel room on Thursday, Mr. Hohn identified himself to a reporter and then referred all further questions to a family lawyer and discontinued the phone call. According to the people familiar, he is married and a father.
Mr. Hohn was detained as he was waiting to board a flight with Cathay Dragon, a subsidiary Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. The airline has come under increased scrutiny by Chinese authorities after some of its employees took part in demonstrations in Hong Kong or voiced support online for the opposition movement.
Chinese police at Guangzhou airport said they haven't detained any Americans since September 12. The airport Customs Office said it had no record of cases related to ammunition that day. China's airport immigration office declined to comment.
According to a FedEx union website, a Todd A. Hohn was part of a group of 21 new pilots who had recently joined the company and were being welcomed by a union membership committee on June 20, 2017.
According to a local television news report, , a Col. Todd A. Hohn stepped down as commander of the 97th Air Mobility Wing at the Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma in June 2017.
FedEx is already reeling from the U.S. trade dispute with China and weaker global macroeconomic conditions. Shares in FedEx plummeted Wednesday by the most in a decade, a day after the delivery giant cut its profit forecast for the fiscal year citing lower revenue projections in its Express unit, which ferries packages and cargo by planes around the world.
In June, FedEx was forced to apologize after it misrouted some of Huawei Technologies' packages, including two that were sent to FedEx's global hub in Memphis, Tenn., instead of to China. The Wall Street Journal reported the parcels were misrouted after FedEx changed its internal systems to comply with the Commerce Department's new restrictions.
Huawei publicly complained, and Chinese officials said they were opening an investigation into FedEx. FedEx made another apology in June after a Huawei smartphone being shipped by a journalist in the U.K. to the U.S. was returned to its sender.
Chinese police have since opened two investigations into FedEx. Last month, the Chinese police said they were investigating FedEx over the discovery of a gun in a package sent from the U.S. to China. FedEx said the incident dated back to June, and that it had notified the authorities about the shipment at the time.
China has strict gun control laws and it is potentially a criminal offense to possess airsoft guns, similar to BB pellet guns, which are sometimes sold by online retailers as toys. It is unclear that carrying airsoft pellets alone would be considered a violation.
Earlier this month, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said it had launched a probe after FedEx was suspected of illegally shipping a parcel containing knives to Hong Kong. FedEx said at the time the shipment never left its origin city and was handed over to authorities in the proper manner.
Write to John Lyons at email@example.com and Wenxin Fan at Wenxin.Fan@wsj.com