In the first private flight of the communist era, a Boeing 737-900 owned by Okay Airways flew 76 passengers from Tianjin to Kunming at a discount price on Friday. It was an historic moment for the private sector. It gained access to one of the most lucrative industries in the mainland - one that last year flew 121 million passengers, an increase of 38.1 per cent over 2003, and 2.7 million tonnes of cargo, up 23.3 per cent. Okay Airways is one of three private carriers that last year received approval from the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC) to start flying, the first non-state airlines to get licences since 1949. With the approval in May last year, Okay was first in the air, leasing a Boeing 737-900 for the inaugural flight from Tianjin to Kunming via Changsha and back again. It charged passengers 680 yuan for a ticket to Kunming, a 40 per cent discount to the regular fare. It expects to take delivery of two more leased Boeing 737-900s next month and in May, use then to fly passengers initially, then freight. An Okay official said that to attract passengers, it would offer discounts of 30 per cent in the first month and its long-term aim was to be a low-cost airline. But this goal would take three to five years to achieve because it would require policy changes and co-operation from many quarters, including airports, fuel providers and air traffic controllers, he said. Meanwhile, Okay will concentrate on filling gaps in the market and flying to cities that are not well served by existing carriers. It plans to fly the Tianjin-Zhangjiajie route by the end of this month. CAAC vice-director Yang Guoqing said: 'We will encourage private and foreign investment in Chinese airlines and allow the market to determine allocation of resources. We will strengthen regulation to maintain equal competition.'