Australia Mulls Singapore Air Rights

SINGAPORE (AP) -- Australia's move to deny Singapore Airlines access to the lucrative U.S.-Australia air route was not permanent, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan said Thursday, claiming that his Australian counterpart told him Canberra needs more time to study the option.

Australia's Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson met Tan Wednesday, and conveyed the Australian government's decision not to allow state-linked Singapore Airlines Ltd. the right to fly between the United States and Australia.

Currently, that route is flown only by Australia's flagship airline, Qantas Airways Ltd., and United Airlines, owned by Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based UAL Corp. Qantas controls 75 percent of market share on the Australia-U.S. route, from which it derives around 15 percent of its net profit.

Singaporean and Australian officials have been in discussions for the last six months to conclude a ''road map'' by June that would eventually grant Singapore Airlines - majority-owned by the city-state's investment arm, Temasek Holdings - the right to fly between Australia's east coast to the U.S. west coast.

The two nations have signed a free trade agreement, but have stopped short of a so-called open-skies agreement that would have given Singapore Airlines access to the trans-Pacific route.

''Mr. Anderson first of all confirmed that it is not true, and I repeat, not true, that Australia has decided to postpone the open skies agreement discussions indefinitely,'' Tan was reported as saying by local media Thursday.

''If as Mr. Anderson said they need more time to complete the study and today is already June 15, the prospects of them completing their study within the next two weeks are fairly minimal,'' he said.

Singaporean officials claim that Australia is protecting Qantas from competition - a charge Qantas denies.

''Qantas is one of the least protected airlines in the world, it has maintained profitability and had relative success while competing against a multitude of subsidised and government-owned airlines,'' Qantas chief executive Geoff Dixon said in a statement late Wednesday.

Qantas continues to be in talks with Canberra ''about a range of issues distorting international competition,'' the statement said.