US efforts to establish open skies agreements with Asia have received a lukewarm response from key targets South Korea and Taiwan at the same time as Japan is forging ahead with its own brand of Asian open skies.

A US Department of Transportation task force toured Asia during late October trying to winning support for a more liberal aviation regime between the two regions. However, any prospect of an early breakthrough was dampened after both South Korea and Taiwan voiced scepticism over Washington's proposals and suggested that US operators would be the big winners.

Japan, meanwhile, for the second time this year, has inked a pact with an Asian neighbour that allows third country codeshares. The first agreement was with Singapore in January; the most recent is with Thailand. Reports in Japan suggest the transport ministry plans to propose similar deals with the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Under the terms of the two pacts, third country airlines will be allowed to operate on the intra-Asian segments as long as they do so under codeshare agreements with an airline from either Japan or the other country in the agreement. In the case of Thailand, for instance, Lufthansa could now fly between Bangkok and Tokyo on a codeshare basis with Thai Airways, regardless of whether Lufthansa has its own rights on that route. The Japan-Thai agreement limits such codeshared flights to seven each week.

Japanese officials acknowledge that these deals could change the arguments in their long-running dispute about US rights in Asia. As one Japanese official puts it: 'This will provide us with a negotiating tool in our talks with the United States.' If Washington ever approved the Delta-All Nippon codeshare alliance, for example, it could allow Delta to operate jointly with All Nippon on flights within Asia. Currently, Delta has no rights beyond Japan.

Many analysts in the region regard the October tour as an attempt by the US to step up pressure on Japan over renegotiation of the controversial bilateral, a claim strongly refuted by the US side. 'It's hoped that these meetings will help develop a sufficient consensus to move to the next phase of the initiative, which would be actual negotiations,' the US DOT said before the team left.

Civil aviation officials in Seoul and Taipei disclosed that the three-man US team, headed by Mark Gerchick, US deputy assistant secretary of transportation for international aviation, was proposing unrestricted traffic rights across the Pacific. The deal would allow Taiwan's China Airlines and EVA Airways, as well as Korea's Asiana and Korean Airlines, to operate flights to any US destination through an intermediate point and fly beyond the US.

Airline officials suggested the lure of operating to South America through the US was not attractive and US airlines would gain an open door to operate in Asia. 'It's the old story. They are offering little and wanting everything in return,' says one Taiwanese airline official. A South Korean official mirrors this view, saying Seoul needs more time to consider the proposals.

Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines, which both favour open skies with the US, are concerned that the process will not progress fast enough if the US first insists on gaining critical mass by winning the consensus of several Asian countries.

T Ballantyne/D Knibb

Source: Airline Business