Aviation, trade officials here expect benefits from US-China flight deal
By Wayne Tompkins
Miami International Airport, its largest airline and South Florida's international-trade community should reap profits from an agreement increasing the number of daily passenger flights between the United States and China, airport and economic-development officials said.
The deal announced last week calls for the addition of 13 daily flights operated by US carriers to and from China by 2012 — more than twice the current number.
For Miami, at the commercial intersection of three continents, improved access to the burgeoning Chinese market will bring direct and indirect benefits, said Xavier Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County's economic-development partnership.
"North American and European companies have used Miami as a launching point for moving into Latin America, and Chinese companies could follow the same model," Mr. Gonzalez said. "We're ideally positioned, and China is already the No. 1 trading partner for the Port of Miami."
American Airlines, the carrier with the biggest presence and an international hub at Miami International Airport, is poised to grab some of the lucrative new routes.
What appears unlikely, however, is a direct flight linking Miami with Beijing or Shanghai in the foreseeable future.
Geography is the culprit, said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American. "Never say never, but if you look at a map, it's an extremely long distance."
About 7,800 miles separate Miami from Beijing, 300 miles beyond the airline's longest route flown by a Boeing 777, between Chicago and Delhi, India, Mr. Smith said.
A 6,900-mile route serving Beijing from American's hub in Dallas-Fort Worth International seems more feasible, though Mr. Smith emphasized the airline has made no decisions.
Mr. Gonzalez said that "even a one-stop flight through Dallas is an improvement over what we have now, which is a hop-skip-and-jump process" to Beijing. Nor is the council ready to concede its dream of direct Miami-China flights, he said.
Miami is a natural nexus for a rapidly growing China-Latin America trade relationship, and "they're getting closer all the time," he said of American's 7,500-mile flight.
The airport has pursued China Eastern Airlines about direct flights.
The US and China agreed to add one daily flight each this year and next, four in 2009, three in 2010 and two each in 2011 and 2012, when there would be 23 per day, US Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said last week.
US airlines can operate only 10 daily flights to China, serving such cities as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, formerly Canton.
American operates one of those flights, between Shanghai and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
Mr. Smith said it likely will be 2009 or later before American gets a clear shot at a second China flight.
The route being awarded this year likely will go to a carrier not currently providing China service, and next year's route is slotted for Guangzhou, a city in southern China in which American Airlines has little interest.
The agreement allows the US to designate three additional US carriers to operate to China — one this year and two in 2009.
The expectation is that American and its US competitors will fight tenaciously for many of the slots.
"The competition for these routes makes some of the Olympic events look tame by comparison," Ms. Peters said at a news conference last week.
American was one of four airlines competing for the most recent US-China route, awarded in January. United Airlines emerged as the winner after a spirited battle and this spring established a route between Beijing and Dulles International Airport near Washington, DC.
American's bid envisioned flights between Dallas-Fort Worth or Chicago and Beijing.
The deal, by 2011, lifts all government limits on the number of cargo flights and carriers serving the two countries, giving US cargo carriers virtually unlimited access to Chinese markets, Ms. Peters said.
"International trade simply cannot operate without air transportation," Ms. Peters said. "Aviation makes it possible to move products and people … across borders quickly and efficiently."
Ms. Peters said that over several years, the agreement is expected to generate $5 billion in new business for US airlines as travel demands grow between the two countries. She said as much as 16% of US-China passenger traffic is being lost to airlines from third countries.
"This means lost revenues for both of our carriers and lost opportunity for our flight crews and other airline employees," she said.
The agreement was announced during the Strategic Economic Dialogue hosted by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.