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US, China Sign Agreement to Increase Commercial Flights - 2004-07-24

Travelers flying between the United States and China often complain of a shortage of seats and expensive airfares. That may soon change, as both countries have signed an agreement to increase commercial flights across the Pacific.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, on a visit to Beijing, joined Chinese Aviation Minister Yang Yuanyuan in signing the agreement to expand passenger and cargo air links between the two countries.

Secretary Mineta said the agreement is an important element that had been missing in the growing trade ties between the United States and China.

"That growth in terms of our trading hasn't been reflected in terms of what's going on in the transportation field," he said.

The U.S. official describes the previous air agreement as "very restrictive," allowing only 54 flights a week. This meant frequently overbooked flights and limited flow of air cargo.

"So this one takes us to 249 round trip flights a week, and gives the opportunity to U.S. carriers as well as Chinese carriers to be able to exercise the potential in this marketplace," he explained.

The deal allows each side to let five new airlines start service between China and the United States. It also opens up more cities. Until now, U.S. carriers were limited to flying to three cities in China and Chinese carriers could fly to only 12 airports in the United States.

On Friday, the United States announced it had allowed two U.S. carriers, United and Northwest, to expand their existing service to China by seven flights a week, including more non-stop service.

Officials said they expect the agreement to open up competition and thus bring down airfares and cargo costs.

Secretary Mineta said the agreement he signed Saturday falls just short of being an "open skies" arrangement, and some restrictions remain. However, he said the deal opens the door for new negotiations in two years to further liberalize air travel between the two countries.