A softening of United Airlines' opposition to limiting fifth freedom traffic beyond Japan could yet signal a breakthrough in the acrimonious dispute that has stalled passenger talks with the US.

The signal came in unprepared remarks by United's chief executive Gerald Greenwald, on which the carrier has declined to elaborate further. After a recent speech in Washington, Greenwald predicted United and Northwest could reach a compromise with Japan on their fifth freedom rights as part of a broad settlement if both sides had good intent. Asked if United would agree to limit its fifth freedom traffic on flights beyond Japan, Greenwald told reporters: 'If there is good intent, we will support a sensible answer.'

But he quickly added that were still two obstacles to an agreement on fifth freedom traffic limits. One is Tokyo's definition of a fifth freedom passenger, which might include someone who stopped over briefly in Japan before resuming their trip. The other is Japan's refusal to allow United to offer connections of less than 12 hours in some markets. Greenwald cited Bangkok-Tokyo-US as an example where poor Tokyo connections discouraged Bangkok-US passengers from flying United, which exacerbated the proportion of fifth freedom traffic.

In a related dispute, Jakarta has now relented under threat of sanctions and will allow Northwest Airlines fifth freedom rights on a proposed Osaka-Jakarta route. Final approval remains stalled in Tokyo as part of the broader Japan-US dispute: no further talks are currently scheduled. The first acrimonious round of talks broke off late in June.

David Knibb

Source: Airline Business