Korean Air has opened a route linking Harbin in Heilongjiang province in China with Seoul as part of an expansion plan aimed at making the South Korean capital a leading gateway to the Asia-Pacific. The carrier also is looking to further expand its existing network of eight mainland routes. Topping the destination wish-list the airline is seeking to develop in China are Kunming and Guilin, according to a planner in its China and Oceania routes team. Overall, the Korean flag-carrier is spending US$10 billion on new aircraft by 2005 and adding 48 cities to the number of destinations it serves worldwide. Any openings it can explore on the mainland will depend on the successful conclusion of negotiations between the governments of South Korea and China, a company source said. Korean Air president Cho Yang-ho claims Seoul is poised to succeed Tokyo as Asia-Pacific's main trans-Pacific link. He cited strong growth in Korean Air's trans-Pacific routes over the past few years, progress in open skies' talks between Seoul and Washington, and an expected boost to capacity when Inchon International Airport, on the outskirts of Seoul, first opens in 2000 as factors backing this ambition. 'Many parts of China, including Beijing, are more accessible from Seoul than from Hong Kong,' Mr Cho said. With Narita International Airport in Tokyo - long the major hub point - now considered overcrowded and expensive, Seoul was emerging as the heir apparent, according to Mr Cho. Passenger volumes on mainland routes were up 26 per cent last year and had risen by 13 per cent so far this year. The first flight on the new mainland route last week coincided with the opening of Korean Air's 200 billion won (about HK$1.73 billion) operations centre in Seoul's Kimpo International airport. The airline said this would increase its efficiency by putting all essential operations under one roof. With Inchon airport on stream in three years' time, Seoul airport's present passenger and cargo handling capacity would nearly double to 34 million passengers and 3.6 million tonnes of cargo, Mr Cho said. SBC Warburg, in a recent report, said over-capacity in the cargo business looked set to dent overall profitability this year. It forecast a 9 per cent increase in international air flight demand in Korea over the next several years. The delivery of its second slim-bodied Boeing 777 aircraft last month marked the fifth of 34 aircraft from Boeing and Airbus that Korean Air said it would be introducing by 2000. It also plans to take 23 ageing aircraft out of service and have a fleet of 200 in service in 2005. The airline's fleet now numbers 114. The carrier said a second plank of an aggressive growth strategy would see it attempt to increase the scheduled destinations it offered from 92 to 140 in the same time frame. Alliances with both regional and international carriers would generate most of the growth, according to Ko Chung-sam, executive vice-president for international relations. The airline dismissed any threat of competition from Korea's second carrier, Asiana Airlines, which entered the market in the early 1990s and has built up a 30 per cent share of the domestic market. Korean Air said it carried 23 million passengers and 950,000 tonnes of cargo last year. Japan and Asia accounted for the largest portion of incoming visitors. International passenger traffic brought in 51 per cent of US$4.3 billion in revenues, with cargo 23 per cent and sales on domestic routes accounting for 12 per cent. A net loss of 210.6 billion won last year by the airline was attributed to the depreciation of the Korean currency.