THE Orient Airlines Association (OAA) has gilded the lily a little in its complaint about US airlines' greater access to US airports. The thrust of its argument for greater gateway access to US airports - that US carriers enjoy the right to fly into more US airports than OAA members do - ignores the way the agreements were made. Gateway deals are done on a bilateral, government-to-government basis. Cathay Pacific has the right to fly into just one US airport, Los Angeles, while Philippine Airlines can land in five. This is more, incidentally, than US carrier Delta, which has been granted the right to fly into only four. Admittedly, most of the deals referred to by the OAA were done a long time ago and may well be due for a review. But the imbalance of gateway rights in favour of US carriers is a notional one. Imagine if a thousand mainlanders wrote to Deng Xiaoping asking for permission to leave China. Let us say he feels particularly benevolent and grants the permission to 100 of them on condition that they speak well of him while overseas. Now, if they shared the logic of the OAA, the mainlanders could form an association and complain that whereas they have collectively granted Deng 100 favours, he has granted them as a group only one. There is no denying the OAA's argument that its member carriers could compete more effectively on transpacific routes if they could fly in via more gateways, but the ''level playing field'' referred to in the organisation's statement simply will never exist in the airline business, dominated as it is around the world by loss-making government-aligned prestige lines. This does not apply in the US, but the governments working out any new bilateral deals over gateways will not be swayed by the Deng Xiaoping-style argument.