China and the United States Saturday signed an agreement to double the number of airlines flying between the two countries and allow a nearly fivefold increase in passenger and cargo flights over the next six years.
The deal will see the number of flights operated by each side increase in phases from 54 round-trip flights a week to 249 flights by the end of the six-year period, said US Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who is visiting Beijing.
The additional flights include 111 new flights by all-cargo carriers and 84 by passenger airlines.
The number of airlines from each country allowed to service the market will increase from four to nine.
Mineta said the agreement was “very significant” as it will allow airlines from both countries to better meet the huge demand for passenger and cargo services that has arisen from increased trade and exchanges between the two countries.
“That exponential growth in terms of our trading hasn’t been reflected in terms of what’s going on in the transportation field,” Mineta said, before signing the agreement with the Yang Yuanyuan, minister of the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China.
Mineta noted there was a large number of tourists travelling between the two countries, an increase in the number of business travelers as well as some 250,000 visitors from China going to the United States.
“The regimen we had been under up to this point was really very very restricted, 54 flights a week. … This (agreement) gives the opportunity to U.S. carriers as well as Chinese carriers to be able to exercise the potential in this marketplace,” he said.
The agreement was “very liberalized” and was just a “smidgen” from an “open skies” agreement, Mineta said.
Consumers will benefit by having more airlines and flights to choose from and increased competition could lower fares and cost of shipping, Mineta said.
Mineta suggested the agreement could also help U.S. airlines earn more money as international flights have been more profitable than domestic services, partly due to higher fares.
“These airlines have not really made any money on the domestic side, but their international operations have been making money for them,” he said.
Chinese residents, especially students, however, have complained about the increased difficulties in obtaining visas to enter the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Mineta said he hoped the visa issue would be resolved by the end of this year, adding that the United States may be missing out as tighter visa restrictions are sending foreign students, who will be future leaders of China, to other countries instead.
The last agreement to expand U.S.-China air services was concluded in April 1999, when each country’s carriers were allowed to increase their weekly flights from 27 to 54, and each side was allowed to designate one additional airline, for a total of four, to serve the market.
As the first phase of the latest agreement, each country can allow 14 additional weekly flights beginning August. The United States on Friday designated United Airlines and Northwest Airlines to each operate seven new flights weekly to China.
Northwest will operate a new daily flight from Detroit to Guangzhou, becoming the first U.S.-carrier to offer a passenger service to the southern Chinese city.
United will begin a new daily nonstop service between Chicago and Shanghai.
The new Chinese flights have not been announced.