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China is a long way from being an open market, but for carriers in China and the UK, this is welcome news. And since it means more flights, and more competition, it could lead to sightly lower fares.

UK and Chinese airlines will be able to more than double the number of flights between the United Kingdom and China under the terms of a deal announced Tuesday.

Passengers carriers from each nation will have rights to fly a combined 100 weekly roundtrips, up from 40 currently, while cargo airlines will have no limits on trips at all. Passenger airlines also will be able to fly between any destination in the UK and any destination in China. Previously, carriers could only serve six points in each country.

Many of the world’s largest countries now have Open Skies agreements with each other, allowing all airlines to fly as much as they want between any two points. This is why airlines may start as many flights as they want between the United States and the UK. But China is a major holdout, and it heavily regulates most international flights.

Good deal for UK economy

The new deal should be a boon to the UK, and in a release announcing the agreement, the government promised it would “boost tourism and trade opportunities for the UK — links which will be vital as we look to build a confident, Global Britain after Brexit.”

According to the UK government, the number of visitors from China increased 46 percent in 2015 to nearly 270,000. In 2015, Chinese visitors spent roughly £586 million ($710 million U.S.) in the UK, the government said.

The vast majority of new flights likely will use London Heathrow, the nation’s premier international airport. Today, there is only one flight between China and a UK city other than London  — a Hainan Airlines flight between Beijing and Manchester. But more carriers may now start other non-London flights that were not viable under the 40-flight-per-week cap.

British Airways may also be a big winner, though a spokeswoman said in an email that the carrier “it has no immediate plans to increase capacity to China.” For now, the UK flag carrier operates two daily flights to Shanghai and one to Beijing as well as less than daily service to Chengdu. Several Chinese airlines, including Hainan, China Eastern, Air China and China Southern, also fly into the UK and could add more flights.

Still, it’s not always easy for carriers to introduce new flights into China. The country’s two biggest airports, Beijing and Shanghai, operate at near capacity, and it can be challenging for airlines to acquire slots at commercially viable times. Last year, United Airlines repeatedly postponed a second flight between San Francisco and Shanghai because it could not obtain reasonable landing slots in Shanghai. United will finally launch the second flight on Friday.

For China, U.S. deal could be next

The United States likely must update its aviation agreement with China soon. The U.S. agreement, last updated in 2007, has two parts — one limiting flights between Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou and the other limited service to other cities.

Airlines in China and the United States have nearly reached the cap on flights to and from Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, which is why American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are competing so fiercely to fly between Los Angeles and Beijing. The losing airline likely will not be able to launch the flight.

Speaking Sept. 19 at the International Aviation Forecast Summit, Zhihang Chi, Air China vice president and general manager for North America, said he does not expect anything to change until after the U.S. presidential election.

He also argued it is the United States, not China, that favors limiting flights. He suggested U.S. carriers may not want more competition from Chinese airlines.

“Back in 2005 the U.S. was the one that was clamoring for market access and more frequencies,” Chi said in September. “Today it is the opposite. We are saying there ought to be more frequencies between the two countries and the U.S. is saying no.”

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Tags: air china, british airways, china, china outbound, London Heathrow, open skies

Photo credit: British Airways promoted itself in 2015 at the GREAT Festival of Creativity in Shanghai. British Airways will have the rights to start new China flights under a deal announced Tuesday. UKTI / Flickr

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