It seems to be a case of accidental transparency in the usually closed-door world of the airline industry. The Air Transport Licensing Authority (Atla), an independent statutory body, has decreed that a public hearing into Cathay Pacific Airways' application to resume operations to mainland cities after a 13-year hiatus must go on, despite calls from both Dragonair and Cathay for an adjournment of proceedings. The two airlines say they need more time to work on a private commercial compromise which would negate the need for a public hearing. This is hardly surprising, as private negotiations are the norm in the airline industry, which remains fiercely protected by governments worldwide. In Hong Kong, moreover, transparency can scarcely be regarded as a watchword in any line of business where major players are involved and billions of dollars are at stake. From discussions on the pricing of power to the expansion of key infrastructure facilities such as the ports and airport, the Hong Kong government has maintained that secrecy is crucial to maintaining a competitive edge over regional and commercial rivals. This is despite the fact that the issues being kept under wraps often have a wider impact on consumers. In the case of Cathay and Dragonair, the government appears to have shown its preference for a quiet back room solution to the question of how the SAR's two airlines should coexist on the lucrative mainland routes. This seems to go against its desire for progressive liberalisation of the sector. Its motivation may well be tied to the intriguing question of whether the Basic Law grants the government - and by extension, Atla - jurisdiction to rule on route expansion to the mainland, as Dragonair's legal team contends. Again, this is an issue with deep implications for the public and should be dealt with transparently. Atla, on the other hand, deserves praise for adhering to its mandate to protect the public interest. Two-thirds of its six-page ruling on the application for adjournment was used to remind the airlines of its role in safeguarding the public interest, not just of consumers but also of the business sector. By using Atla's hearing process as a bargaining tool in commercial negotiations, a case can be made that the airlines had been making a mockery of that role. At the end of the day, transparency makes commercial sense, too. The expansion of air services between Hong Kong and mainland cities, in particular Shanghai, is critical if Chek Lap Kok is to maintain - and add to - its role as China's premier air services gateway. Allowing more competition on mainland routes will be an important step in the process of liberalising the airline industry and maintaining Hong Kong's lead over its rivals.