A new agreement between the United States and China could help pave the way for nonstop flights from Denver to the rapidly growing Asian country.
The agreement, announced Wednesday, doubles the number of flights between the countries over the next five years, creating new opportunities for large cities across the U.S.
Denver's efforts to lure nonstop service to Asia are focused primarily on Tokyo. But local officials say they'll increasingly set their sights on China - possibly Shanghai - as well.
"We've started to talk about this and to have some conversations with airlines," said Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. "We're actually rethinking our strategy. This might make China easier to get into than Japan for a nonstop flight."
Under the accord, U.S. airlines will be able to operate a total of 23 round-trip flights a day to China by 2012, up from the current cap of 10. Chinese carriers can offer the same number of flights to the United States.
China, which has the world's fastest-growing major economy, is becoming a hot spot for U.S. businesses and travelers.
Colorado's ties with the country are growing as well. China is now the state's third-largest export market. Last year, exports to China hit $584 million, a 14-fold increase from 1996, according to the World Trade Center Denver.
"The business ties between Colorado and China are growing on a daily basis," said Jim Reis, head of Denver's WTC. "We have a lot of companies doing business there and a lot eager to do business there."
ProLogis, for instance, is making a big push into China and now employs 200 workers there. The world's largest industrial developer has announced projects in 18 Chinese markets - representing $1.9 billion in development potential. ProLogis executives make frequent trips to China.
A nonstop flight "would obviously be very attractive for us," said Arthur Hodges, a ProLogis spokesman. "Generally, if you're flying to China, you're either going through Chicago or San Francisco or Los Angeles, which can add two or three hours to the flight. That's a significant amount of time."
Airport officials said Air China is the best candidate to add nonstop flights from Denver because the carrier is set to become a member of the Star Alliance group of airlines. Alliance partners share frequent-flier benefits and can offer passengers connections on one another's flights. That will allow Air China to offer connecting flights in the U.S. on United Airlines, which has its second-largest hub in Denver. United also has expressed strong interest in starting a flight from Denver to Japan and might consider China as well.
"This agreement moves the possibility (of China service) way up," said Sally Covington, DIA's deputy manager of aviation, public relations and marketing.
Additionally, Denver could benefit from a piece of Wednesday's agreement that gives U.S. air cargo companies nearly unlimited access to China. Developers here are planning an "inland port" east of Denver International Airport that would serve as a shipping and receiving hub incorporating rail, air and road systems.
Don't expect nonstop flights to China anytime soon, though. Officials say it's likely to be at least two to four years before Denver lands Asia service.
And tough U.S. visa requirements for visitors from China limit the opportunities.
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