China and the US signed an aviation agreement yesterday to expand flights in the booming market between the two countries and drop most restrictions on each other's airlines.
The pact will increase the number of passenger and cargo flights allowed for Chinese and US carriers in stages over the next six years, rising from the current 54 per week to 249. To start, each side will receive 14 more weekly flights next month.
The deal could ease shortages of seats that have long prompted complaints by tourists and business travelers.
The pact eventually will eliminate most limits on schedules and cities which Chinese and US carriers can serve in the two countries, US Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said.
"It's just a smidgen away from being an `open skies' agreement," Mineta said before a signing ceremony with China's aviation minister, Yang Yuanyuan (楊元元).
The deal should lower fares by increasing competition, replacing "very restrictive" terms that have hampered carriers from meeting demand for passenger and cargo flights, Mineta said.
"Exponential growth in our trading hasn't been reflected in terms of what's going on in transportation," he said. The new deal "gives Chinese carriers as well as US carriers a chance to exercise the potential in this marketplace," Mineta said.
The agreement permits the two sides to reopen talks in 2006 on whether to liberalize air travel still further, Mineta said.
It allows each side to name five new airlines to fly between the two countries, according to Karan Bahtia, an assistant US transportation secretary for aviation.
The US government on Friday picked United Airlines and Northwest Airlines, which already fly to China, to receive the first additional flights under the new agreement.
American Airlines said it asked for a delay in awarding the routes until next year, when it plans to apply for approval to fly to China. But Bahtia said Washington acted immediately to increase services as quickly as possible.
Bahtia said the new agreement will eliminate restrictions that until now have limited US airlines to serving five cities in China and Chinese carriers to 12 American cities.
It wasn't clear which additional airlines China might name for service to the US. Beijing is in the midst of an effort to consolidate its industry into groups based around three major carriers.
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