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Mainland carriers set to join Asian airline group

THE heads of 14 Asian airlines yesterday decided to allow mainland companies to join a new-look Orient Airlines Association (OAA).

They also voted to push ahead with proposals to give their 27-year-old organisation a thorough revamp, following an independent review of its strategic role and effectiveness by consultant Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

They want to upgrade the OAA to give the region a more powerful voice worldwide, particularly in fighting for fairer bilateral air service agreements with the United States.

The Japanese airlines have been vocal about the alleged abuse of passenger pick-up rights by some US carriers in Asia, accusing the Americans of bullying tactics.

Yesterday's decision by the OAA Assembly of Presidents in Bangkok to allow China carriers to join their exclusive club follows pressure from China Southern Airlines.

The group has submitted an expression of interest to become a member and many other mainland carriers are now expected to follow suit.

Cathay Pacific managing director Rod Eddington said the OAA would provide China's fledgling carriers with an excellent opportunity to expand their contacts and benefit from the organisation's resources and know-how.

He hoped the OAA would provide a forum through which experienced airlines in the region could help to protect and guide China's rapidly expanding airlines as they develop in the fierce world of international aviation.

OAA chairman Chatrachai Bunya-Antana, president of Thai International Airways, said the move to welcome mainland firms into the fold was in recognition of China's rapidly growing industry, which boasted a 33 per cent rise in the number of passengers itcarried last year alone.

Mr Chatrachai warned not to expect an influx of members from among China's 37 airlines. He said carriers would have to satisfy several requirements before they could be considered for full membership.

The OAA presidents also yesterday officially accepted EVA Air of Taiwan as its 15th member.

So far, there has been no open friction about the prospect of Taiwanese and Chinese carriers sitting around the same table under the OAA banner.

Frank Hsu, EVA Air president, said he looked upon the OAA as a forum where members could co-operate and benefit from the growth of the travel industry in the Asia-Pacific region.

Fighting off the threat of unfair competition from US carriers has been a much hotter topic of discussion among Asia's airline chiefs this week.

There have been numerous calls for Asian carriers to join forces and fight to correct what they see as huge imbalances suffered by members under outdated bilateral air service agreements with the US.

Many of these agreements between the US and Asian countries have not been updated since the 1950s and 1960s and lean in the Americans' favour.

The members have also debated ways of upgrading the OAA and where it should be based.

Member airlines were united behind the upgrading plan, although some seemed cautious about recommendations from some members that the OAA be moved out of Manila and staffed with full-time specialists rather than employees of member airlines on temporary secondment.

After yesterday's meeting, Mr Chatrachai said the OAA would require wider co-operation among Asia-Pacific carriers, both on operational matters and in finding a common view on issues affecting them.

It would serve as a ''think-tank'', focusing on key issues and researching ways to increase co-operation to enhance performance for its members, he said.

The restructuring of the OAA is expected to be finalised within the next 12 months.