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SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 5) – Notwithstanding the recent signing of a bilateral agreement expanding air services between China and the United States, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands government wants to be exempted from the pact to avoid competing with lucrative U.S. destinations.

Gov. Juan N. Babauta, in a press conference Monday, acknowledged that for the CNMI to enjoy the China market, it has to adhere to the bilateral air agreement. The agreement, however, only provides limited flights between the two countries.

"What concerns us is that, if you give China a choice [where to fly in the U.S.], they'd likely choose New York [or] Los Angeles, so we want to seek exemption from the bilateral agreement," Babauta said.

Prior to the signing of the expanded air agreement, China was allowed only 12 landing points in the United States.

The Saipan International Airport bagged the 11th slot, thus allowing direct flights from China to Saipan.

The expanded agreement, which was signed last July, more than doubles the number of airlines that can fly between the two countries. The agreement will allow five additional airlines from each country to serve the U.S.-China market over the next six years.

The agreement provides for a total of 195 new weekly flights for each country - 111 by cargo carriers and 84 by passenger airlines - growing to a total of 249 weekly flights at the end of a six-year phase-in period.

Meantime, Tinian International Airport may now finally be granted approval as another point of destination with the expanded air agreement.

Authorities earlier said the lack of federal-approved destinations was one reason why Tinian direct flights would not materialize.

The issue was also connected to the absence of Transportation Security Administration personnel at the Tinian airport. TSA was reported to be just awaiting confirmation of approved regular air service to the island before taking over security operations at the airport.

The CNMI and the federal government have invested some $20 million in the Tinian International Airport.

At present, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines make four flights to Saipan a week. CES flies from Shanghai while CSA flies from Guangzhou.

Authorities hope to see Beijing-Saipan flights early this year.

The CNMI approved last week its much-awaited Approved Destination Status with China, allowing for group travels of Chinese tourists to the CNMI.

January 5, 2005

Saipan Tribune

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