'[The merger] should benefit the travelling public who should be able to have more choices. Despite the shareholding realignments, it is essential for both companies to continue to compete with other airlines. There should be room for the lowering of airfares on certain routes.' Stephen Ip Shu-kwan Secretary for Economic Development and Labour June 9 '[Competition] is really not the issue. We did not enter this agreement to decrease competition, decrease flights and somehow put up prices. That is absolutely not the case. We did it because our networks were very different and we badly wanted a significant presence in mainland China. This is no sense anti-competitive.' Christopher Pratt Swire Pacific chairman June 9 Being a cynic can cost you your job in this town but after more than a decade of covering Hong Kong's transport beat Below Deck has noticed that any time the private and public sectors sing the same tune it always sounds a little off key. There are reasons for the cynicism. Two years ago when senior government officials met journalists to smooth the waters ahead of their bid (since withdrawn) to partially privatise the airport, their first words were: 'It's not about the money.' And it was the same Mr Ip who in 1998 famously said that commercial wrangling - not politics - had caused the three-year delay in awarding the Container Terminal 9 project. It's hard to see how last week's merger of Cathay Pacific Airways and Hong Kong Dragon Airlines - the city's two major airlines - and their enhanced co-operation with Air China will result in more choice of product or ticket prices for consumers, as Mr Ip claims. Some industry veterans will find the port analogy appropriate because the government, in its statements about the merger, has thus far displayed the same kind of logic-defying hopefulness that saw our status as the region's premier hub for maritime trade slip away recently. Those same veterans will also understand how terms such as 'optimisation of networks' and 'code-sharing' are little more than airline speak for less choice for consumers. A quick scan of the June 12 departure schedule on the Airport Authority's website reveals some mainland routes where the new power trio's control of the market should be viewed with some concern, if for no other reason than the potential for abuse. Beijing stands out the most. Of the 19 flights to Beijing from Hong Kong scheduled last Wednesday, only two were not offered by the new partners. They also offered 60 per cent of the flights to Xiamen and had no competition on services to Chengdu, Tianjin, Dalian and Chongqing. Even without Cathay having access to Shanghai - a fact that will change this month when the new Sino-HK air services arrangement (ASA) is unveiled - Dragonair still operated 16 of the 30 flights on offer that day. The financial whizzes at Fitch reckon the trio will control 60 per cent of the traffic between Hong Kong and the mainland and one can imagine they will control an even greater proportion of the more lucrative business traffic. A 60 per cent market share wouldn't quite raise red flags with a competition authority, if we had one, but 70 per cent would and we've yet to see what's in the new ASA. With the trio dominating some of the key mainland routes, you can bet the ASA will include a very liberal expansion of beyond rights through Hong Kong to international markets for mainland carriers. It may even give a third Hong Kong carrier more access to China. But that will not ease a lack of competition on some key mainland routes, especially considering the proposed merger provides for Air China and the new-look Cathay to profit-share on mainland routes where they both operate. It seems the only context in which 'competition' has been discussed in regard to last week's deal is in how it is changing the 'competitive landscape' for the private-sector firms involved. Without a competition watchdog, consumer interests are a 'non-issue', despite the fact that there is prima facie evidence that scarce competition already has travellers paying top dollar on some routes. It is not for Below Deck to say whether or not last week's deal would have passed the scrutiny of an anti-competition authority, if we had one. But no one should take comfort in assurances that the consumer won't be the biggest losers just because some pretty important people would like you to believe otherwise.