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SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (March 31, 2000 – KSAI)---Mandarin Air is set to begin twice weekly charter flights from Taipei to Saipan beginning this May and Speaker Ben Fitial is optimistic that this move will open the door for other airlines to provide additional air services to both visitors and CNMI customers.

Mandarin Air officials met yesterday with House leaders to discuss their intent to begin air services by May. The airline company will use 737-800 series aircraft, which can accommodate more than 150 passengers and plans to offer Monday and Friday flights to the CNMI.

The Speaker said the House is ready to support Mandarin Air in securing its application with the Department of Transportation in Washington.

The House, in a resolution, also gave its support to Armenian Airlines in their request for a permit to fly CNMI skies. Armenian Air will provide charter flights from Clark Air Base in the Philippines to Saipan.

In a similar development, the Speaker also will be meeting with Continental Airlines in Houston to follow-up on the discussions the leadership had on Wednesday with Wally Diaz, Continental's staff vice-president for marketing and promotions.

Fitial says Continental, which has limited its flight services to the CNMI due to low passenger turnout, is receptive to a request to re-establish non-stop flights. He said airline executives are encouraged over rising load factors, particularly from Japan. Fitial believes Continental also is trying to position itself in capturing CNMI customers, due to growing competition from other air carriers which have indicated interest in the CNMI.

At present, negotiations are on going to lure two other airlines to service the Japan-Saipan route.

For additional reports from KSAI – Saipan, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/KSAI.



By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (March 30, 2000 – Saipan Tribune)---The House of Representatives is working on a proposal to grant tax breaks and other incentives to Continental Micronesia in hopes of helping the carrier sell the CNMI in key Asian markets as well as to reduce fares to Saipan and other Micronesian destinations.

The House leadership, led by Speaker Benigno R. Fitial, met yesterday with a representative of the Guam-based carrier to discuss the plan, which must remain under wraps pending a final decision.

Wally Dias, a staff member in the off ice of the vice president of Continental Micronesia, welcomed the move, but added that details of the plan still have to be studied.

"These type of actions are very pro-active and would be helpful. We're going to have to go back and work out the details of what that can actually be accomplished," he told reporters after the meeting.

The airline official stressed, however, that both the CNMI and Continental must work together in promoting the islands in Japan, which he said would create the "biggest impact" in the local tourism industry.

"'[We are] just trying to find some common grounds to work together. The Speaker and I had a very productive meeting and we have some measures to talk about [to] try to get more information," added Mr. Dias.

The Commonwealth Ports Authority last year agreed to provide a 50 percent cut in departure and arrival fees to all airlines servicing the CNMI in an effort to encourage them to bring in more tourists here. But the incentive, which is set to expire this October, has some strings attached as it will only be offered if a carrier increases by 15 percent its total number of arriving passengers.

Mr. Fitial declined to elaborate on the proposed tax breaks for Continental when sought for comment, but said the House is working on a definite plan.

Better Ties

Yesterday's meeting is the first to be held between Continental and the House under Mr. Fitial's leadership and could likely improve relations between the carrier and the island government, which have soured in recent years following a downscaling of Continental’s service to Saipan.

Continental, the largest carrier in Micronesia, has abandoned its direct flights to Saipan from such key Asian cities as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul and Manila, on the heels of the economic crisis that hit the region in 1997. The carrier, whose mother company is Continental Airlines, based in Houston, has blamed declining passenger loads and rising operational costs for cutting nonstop services. The CNMI government has criticized the decision, which it maintained came without consulting local officials. All Continental flights to and from Micronesian islands now touch down at Guam's new airport -- partly funded by the carrier -- for a few-hour stop over before passengers take connecting flights to their next destinations.

CNMI officials say making Guam Continental’s hub has deprived the Commonwealth of potential tourists, especially Japanese visitors, who don't want to wait too long for their connecting flights. This has prompted lawmakers with the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures (APIL) to push for the creation of a new regional airline to upgrade service in most Micronesian islands and fill the void left by Continental.

Promotional Activities

But Mr. Dias pointed out that Continental has been actively participating in economic projects originated by the CNMI government in trying to spur the tourism sector, including increasing promotional activities in Japan, the island's main market.

"The nonstop service is kind of down the road. We have to get successful ones from the current route structure first [before resuming direct flights to Saipan]," he said.

Hopes are high that the industry will eventually rebound as current visitor arrivals to the CNMI have inched up slightly in recent months.

Japan's recovery from the economic recession will also signal better airline service to Saipan, according to Mr. Dias. Continental, in fact, will add more flights this summer from Japan to the Micronesian islands to accommodate an anticipated increase in the outbound travel from that country.

"So we are cautiously optimistic that things are starting to improve and we may start seeing increasing numbers," said Mr. Dias.

Backing this optimism, Mr. Fitial noted that the Japanese government may finally designate the old international airport located within metropolitan Tokyo as a departure and arrival area for international flights. Presently almost exclusively a domestic airport, Haneda is more accessible to Japanese travelers than Narita International Airport, where nearby hotels often are used for layover purposes before passengers depart for overseas destinations.

"Haneda will become an international airport beginning this summer and that will bring people from Japan directly to Saipan through Japan Airlines," said Mr. Fitial, adding that this assurance was made during a recent visit here of a top Japanese lawmaker.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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