An air services deal three years in the making had better be a good one for all parties involved. After all the negotiating that has taken place, it is difficult to comprehend how any of the parties would be surprised by the resulting agreement. But before the ink was even dry on Hong Kong's new agreement with the United States, Cathay had issued a statement outlining its 'disappointment with the outcome of the fifth-freedom discussion which is a clear unbalanced exchange in favour of the US carriers'. Cathay said: 'The US negotiation team has achieved major success for the US carriers.' The airline, Hong Kong's biggest, concluded: 'We are disappointed with the US protectionism, which denies Hong Kong carriers' equivalent commercial opportunities.' Cathay managers know as well as anyone in the industry the commercial realities of air services negotiations and the high degree of government protection afforded to the industry, so what did they expect? Surely not that US negotiators would work to give Hong Kong carriers major concessions. When I went to the office over the weekend, colleagues were keen to know whether Cathay was right to say the Hong Kong government had been hoodwinked by the US and its airline industry. If Cathay's statement is to be believed then the obvious conclusion is, yes. Certainly, the US carriers - cargo and passenger - got a good deal. With it, Federal Express and United Parcel Service have the on-carriage access they need to make their regional hubs in the Philippines and, to a lesser degree, in France and Germany, work the way they were meant to. US passenger carriers have vastly expanded fifth-freedom opportunities to operate onwards from Chek Lap Kok. They can also partner other airlines for access to most major destinations in Asia and beyond. But, it should not be concluded that Hong Kong got a raw deal. Besides the obvious benefits to local consumers in allowing more foreign operators in Chek Lap Kok, Cathay got the prize it lusted for: US regulatory approval for its code-sharing partnership with American Airlines. Gateway limitations for Cathay in the US were also lifted, meaning it has the freedom to ramp up its flights to major cities - Cathay does not yet fly to Chicago, for instance, a major gateway to the US midwest and a financial centre - and truly take advantage of American's domestic network. Short of being allowed to resume mainland operations in a big way, the US is probably the most lucrative emerging market for Cathay. Its demands for enhanced transatlantic rights cannot be much more than a red herring. Cathay concedes it is unusual to gain further concessions on fifth-freedom rights left unused. Does Cathay truly believe that any deal will allow it to compete profitably on services across the Atlantic - probably the most competitive market in the world - with its own planes? And, to be absolutely fair, most of the general concessions were worked out months earlier. This newspaper reported on US demands for passenger fifth-freedoms as early as last year; rest assured that Cathay had long ago weighed the consequences. If any airline emerged from the talks weakened, it was Dragonair. The expansion of US cargo rights means its fledgling cargo operations to Europe will be under pressure; it is also planning a regional network and US services that will probably need to be rethought. So, what is the point of Cathay's grousing? It must be positioning itself for future talks over the next decade. No one is certain how the world's airline alliances will evolve, except that, given the horrendous state of the industry, they will probably strengthen on an airline-to-airline basis. As such, the next step for Cathay and American will be to secure anti-trust immunity in the US, allowing them to align their schedules and air fares in the same way that Lufthansa and United Airlines have done and that Air France and Delta Air Lines are in the process of doing. For now, Hong Kong can rest assured in the skill of its negotiators.