CANBERRA Jan 2 Australia and the United States
will start talks on an open-skies aviation deal within the next
six weeks to open up the lucrative trans-Pacific route between
the two countries, Australia's government said on Wednesday.
Transport Minister Anthony Albanese gave approval for
formal talks to start in Washington next month, in a move which
could see more U.S. carriers fly to Australia via ports in
Asia, such as Tokyo.
A spokesman for Albanese said the meetings would be held
between Feb. 12-14.
A deal could clear the way for Australian airline Virgin
Blue Holdings Ltd VBA.AX VBA.AX to begin flights to the
United States on its carrier V Australia by the end of this
year, edging open one of the world's most lucrative and
protected long-haul routes.
Under the current aviation treaty between Australia and the
United States, airlines based in either country can only launch
four weekly flights on the route in the first year.
V Australia, which is 62 percent owned by Toll Holdings Ltd
TOL.AX, has asked for 10 weekly flights, having already
placed an order for six long-range Boeing 777-300ERs with
options to buy another six of the jets.
Australia's former conservative government rejected
repeated requests from Singapore Airlines (SIAL.SI) for
permission to fly from Australia to the United States,
protecting flag carrier Qantas Airways Ltd (QAN.AX) from more
competition on the route.
The new centre-left Labor government, elected in November,
has not yet said if it supports the entry of Singapore Airlines
on the route. Singapore wants access to new markets to help
offset competition from low-cost carriers in Asia.
United Airlines is currently the only competitor to Qantas
in non-stop flights to the U.S. It runs 14 flights a week to
Australia. Qantas operates 48 flights a week and reportedly
generates as much as 20 percent of its profits from the route.
A 2006 report for Singapore Airlines said Qantas charged 38
percent more for flights from Sydney to Los Angeles than on the
more competitive "kangaroo route" from Sydney to London.
Singapore Airlines estimates that opening the Pacific route
to more competition could increase the number of travellers
between the United States and Australia by up to 8 percent.
(Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by James Thornhill)