IN A MAJOR SIGN of improved relations between the UK and Chinese Governments, Hong Kong carriers Cathay Pacific Airways and Dragonair have been granted additional rights to fly across and into China.

Under the deal, Beijing has opened up new routes through Chinese airspace to Europe, North America and Vietnamese capital Hanoi. "This will mean quicker access to these key destinations," says Cathay managing director Rod Eddington.

The opening of three new routes over central and northern China offers the most significant change. The quickest of the three, via Wuhan, Beijing, Mongolia and Novosibirsk, is more than 1,000km (540nm) shorter than the existing route via south-west China, India and Iran.

Westbound in northern winter, the new Mongolian route will cut travel time to London by more than 2h, compared to the Iranian route, and save nearly 1h 30min over the Afghanistan/CIS route. With reduced headwinds in summer, the time savings are greater.

At the same time, Dragonair has been given rights to operate from Hong Kong to five new Chinese destinations, including Tsingtao and Shantou. It will also be allowed to increase its twice-weekly frequencies to Chengdu.

It has also been given permission finally to launch its new Kaohsiung service from 31 July, following China's long-awaited approval of a new Hong Kong-Taiwan air-services agreement. The deal clears the way for newcomer EVA Air to fly to Hong Kong, and increases frequencies for incumbent carriers Cathay and China Airlines.

The Chinese authorities have repeatedly held off approving the deal, as well as any for new over-flight or destination rights, in an effort to pressure the Hong Kong authorities into approving a China National Aviation (CNAC) application for a local air-operator's certificate. In a far-reaching settlement, CNAC agreed to drop plans for a new airline in return for control of Dragonair. Chinese state-run investment company Citic took a larger stake in Cathay, diluting Swire Pacific's absolute majority control (Flight International, 8-14 May, P13).

The deal was recently approved, by Cathay shareholders and the Hong Kong stock exchange. CNAC has since appointed three directors to Dragonair's board, headed by new chairman Wang Guixiang, while Citic has doubled its presence on the Cathay board of directors, to four members.

Dragonair is understood to be looking for four to five additional 150-seat narrow-body aircraft from 1997, to increase its China and regional services. It already operates seven leased Airbus Industrie A320s and three A330-300s. A fourth A330, leased from International Lease Finance and in temporary service with Cathay, will join Dragonair shortly.

Source: Flight International