U.S. Official Urges Hong Kong to Open Skies

HONG KONG (AP) -- The U.S. transportation secretary warned Hong Kong on Tuesday that it will lose its status as a global aviation hub if it doesn't sign an agreement with Washington to open its skies further.

Norman Mineta urged Hong Kong to allow an unlimited number of U.S. airlines to operate in the territory. Airlines should also have the freedom to set ticket prices and establish hubs in Hong Kong, he said.

''In today's global aviation market, airports that seek to function as hubs - as Hong Kong has for so many years - will only retain their status if they offer carriers the maximum flexibility and freedom possible,'' Mineta told a meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

There are about 200 cargo and passenger flights between Hong Kong and the U.S. each week.

Mineta said many airlines might bypass Hong Kong because they are using planes that can fly longer distances or are landing at competing airports, such as in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

''These bypassed cities will see fewer travelers passing through their airports, less cargo being handled and fewer passengers arriving to do business and spend money,'' he said. ''Hong Kong has everything to lose.''

But some in the local industry questioned the need to open Hong Kong further to foreign carriers.

''There is a great deal of choice already. I don't see what advantage there is to the Hong Kong public,'' said Martin Craigs, president of Aerospace Forum Asia. ''How many airlines do you need to fly to Tokyo and to Bangkok?''

The U.S. Transportation Department says America has 67 Open Skies agreements, which allow an unlimited number of airlines to operate. They include Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Hong Kong and U.S. officials are to discuss the possibility of signing an Open Skies agreement in Washington on April 25.