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Originally published July 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 10, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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U.S., China flights to double

U.S. and Chinese transportation officials took advantage of their visit to Seattle for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner rollout to sign an agreement...

Seattle Times business reporter

U.S. and Chinese transportation officials took advantage of their visit to Seattle for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner rollout to sign an agreement Monday doubling the number of passenger flights between the two countries by 2012.

It wasn't clear whether the agreement would mean any direct flights from Seattle to China. Washington does more trade with China per capita than any other state but still has no direct flights to the country.

"With our economies so reliant on each other, we must take every opportunity to make it easier to do business and more convenient for our nations to stay connected," U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said. "Our goal is to make flying from Seattle to China as easy as flying to New York or Boston today."

Today passengers traveling from Seattle to China typically connect through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, B.C., or Tokyo.

Until now, transportation between the U.S. and China was limited by a prior agreement to 10 non-stop flights a day by U.S. carriers to China and three flights by Chinese carriers to the U.S., according to the Transportation Department.

Last year about 2 million passengers flew between the two countries. That's expected to increase, especially in 2008, as people travel to China for the Beijing Olympics.

Delta Air Lines and US Airways have already applied for new routes into China, said Andrew Steinberg, assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs. The Transportation Department will choose one new route starting this year and another next year.

The department will also choose from among four U.S. airlines already operating flights to China to start three additional daily flights to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou by 2009.

The reciprocal agreement provides for an equal number of flights from China, though Chinese carriers have not fully used their existing quota.

Monday's agreement, which also provides unlimited cargo flights, was the result of yearlong negotiations between the U.S. and China, finalized in May at the Strategic Economic Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

The deal could generate as much as $5 billion in revenue for the airline industry over the next six years, Peters said.

In 2010, the two countries will begin negotiations to lift all restrictions on commercial air traffic, she said.

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Yet passenger traffic from China to the U.S. has also been limited by restrictions on visas for Chinese tourists.

"That certainly has been part of the discussion," Peters said. She said she expected more Chinese travelers to be able to get U.S. visas over time.

Yang Yuanyuan, China's minister of civil aviation, called the agreement important for promoting trade.

"The flow of people from Washington to China and U.S. to China will be more convenient and efficient," he said.

"Starting from the early-1970s, China began to introduce Boeing aircraft," Yang said. Chinese airlines now own a total of 747 Boeing jets, he said, adding "it's a very lucky number."

Several Chinese airlines have expressed interest in operating between the U.S. and China, he said.

Any direct flight between Seattle and China would most likely be operated by a Chinese airline, because none of the large American carriers has a hub in the region, said Mark Reis, the Port of Seattle's managing director for aviation.

China's Hainan Airlines and Shanghai Airlines have been in serious talks with the Port of Seattle about establishing service to Seattle, Reis said.

A Seattle connection makes sense for these relatively new, independent Chinese carriers, because they are not bound by business partnerships with U.S. airlines that would pressure them to fly to a partner's hub elsewhere, he said.

Chinese airlines would need an agreement with a U.S. carrier to connect to other cities in the region. Hainan has already spoken with Alaska Airlines, Reis said.

"Chinese carriers are getting Boeing 787s off the assembly line," he added. "Starting next summer, they are going to have a bunch of aircraft that are just perfect for this route."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

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