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Originally published August 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 3, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Seattle-Beijing flights planned

China's Hainan Airlines has applied to operate a nonstop flight between Seattle and Beijing starting next June, according to the Civil Aviation...

Seattle Times business reporter

China's Hainan Airlines has applied to operate a nonstop flight between Seattle and Beijing starting next June, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).

The application follows a recent agreement between the U.S. and China to double the number of passenger flights between the two countries by 2012. Transportation officials announced that agreement in Seattle on July 9, the day after celebrations for the rollout of Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner.

Hainan, China's fourth-largest airline, has applied to operate the Beijing-Seattle route using Airbus A330 planes, according to a CAAC statement on Thursday.

The Airbus airplanes would likely be leased as an interim measure until Hainan takes delivery of new Boeing widebody jets it has on order. In 2005, Hainan ordered eight 787 Dreamliners, the first of which is scheduled to be delivered in June 2008 in time for the Beijing Olympics.

Hainan had been in talks with the Port of Seattle for almost five years about establishing new nonstop service, but the Chinese carrier had been deciding between Seattle and Newark, N.J., as the U.S. endpoint. Besides securing the go-ahead from CAAC, Hainan would also need approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Currently there are no nonstop flights between Seattle and Beijing. Starting one could help frequent travelers avoid having to spend more time making connections through other West Coast cities or Asian countries.

"For tons of people it would make a huge difference," said Skip Kotkins, chief executive of Skyway Luggage. "I think it would be a very beneficial thing. They're a huge trading partner and we ought to have access."

Last year about 69,000 passengers flew between Seattle and China, not including passengers connecting through Seattle from other cities, said Kazue Ishiwata, senior manager of air-service development at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. By 2009, she expects that number to nearly double. More than 100,000 passengers are expected to connect to other cities through Seattle, bringing the total traffic to about 227,000 passengers.

Because none of the largest American carriers has a hub in the Pacific Northwest, the market is open for a Chinese airline to operate the route, using a U.S. partner such as Alaska Airlines or Horizon Air to connect to other cities in the region.

"We have had a few initial conversations with Hainan Airlines and look forward to the possibility of working with them to expand the benefits of the proposed Beijing-Seattle flights," said Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Amanda Tobin Bielawski.

Based on China's southern Hainan Island, the airline is backed by George Soros, its largest investor. The airline plans to expand internationally under the name Grand China Air, move its main operations to Beijing and list shares overseas.

Two Chinese airlines, Shanghai Airlines Cargo International and Great Wall Airlines, also applied to operate cargo flights to the U.S., the first starting next month, CAAC said.

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Meanwhile, seven U.S. carriers are vying for a limited number of spots between the U.S. and China. One route will open this year and four others in 2009. Northwest Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Continental Airlines, American Airlines and US Airways and MAXjet have all applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation for the new routes, but only all-business carrier MAXjet includes a Seattle route (between Seattle and Shanghai).

The new transportation agreement allows 23 daily round-trip flights between the two countries by 2012, up from 10 now.

In 2010, the U.S. and China are set to begin negotiations on an "open skies" agreement, which lifts restrictions on commercial air traffic.

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

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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