Five Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) member countries have agreed to what is dubbed the world's first multilateral open-skies air services agreement. At an annual high-level APEC meeting in Brunei, the host nation joined with Chile, New Zealand, Singapore and the USA in putting its name to the pact.

Although the deal is largely symbolic, its backers hope it will urge other countries to adopt a more open stance on international air services regulations. Two others, Australia and Japan, attended talks as observers but have not agreed to sign up to the deal. New Zealand already had open-skies pacts with the other four signatories, as did the USA. Both Brunei and Singapore had such agreements with all but Chile.

Under the terms of the "plurilateral" accord, carriers from all five countries can establish services to, from and beyond any destination in any other participant nation.

Asian carriers have given a cautious welcome to the deal, saying true liberalisation will not take place until airline ownership rules are revamped globally.

As the deal was being signed in Brunei, members from the 18 members of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) were gathering in Auckland for their annual presidents' meeting. AAPA director general Richard Stirland commented that moves towards further liberalisation were encouraging but should be seen for what they were.

"There is a difference between liberalisation and open skies. All of these terms have to be used very carefully," said Stirland, speaking in Auckland. "Obviously any agreement that is includes the United States, as this does, makes the United States the driving force. As a result, any other country would not sign up until they have an agreement first with the United States."

Stirland also said there were key issues relating to the USA that needed to be worked out before there could be "real open skies", including changes to restrictive ownership policies and those that bar foreign airlines from operating domestically within the US market.

APEC forum leaders pledged at meetings in New Zealand in 1999 to further liberalise air services to "better meet consumer needs". APEC covers 21 countries and territories, and the forum's transportation working group says there has since been "clear evidence of APEC-wide implementation of recommendations on more competitive air services".

Source: Airline Business