Liberalized air travel agreements negotiated May 23 between the United States and China bode well for Atlanta, but Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport will have to improve its capacity to handle more passengers, Jeff Pearse, the airport’s director of marketing and business development, told GlobalAtlanta.

Senior level officials from the U.S. and China negotiated a liberalized air travel agreement that ups the number of daily round-trip flights of U.S. carriers to China from its current 10 to 23 by 2012.

The agreement also allows China-based airlines immediate and unfettered access into the U.S., according to Mr. Pearse, who said that he would start looking for Chinese airlines to fly into Atlanta.

“Things are radically different today than they were two days ago. This opens up a whole new frontier for us,” he told GlobalAtlanta on May 24, although he noted that few China-based airlines had the fleet and capacity to handle such long-haul international flights.

The real winner, though, is Delta Air Lines Inc., he said, which is pursuing its first access into China through an Atlanta-Shanghai direct flight, which it will apply for later this year.

“Let’s say they’re granted the China route between Atlanta and Shanghai in 2008. That bodes well for them. It gives them experience with the market, and it allows them to build their brand,” said Mr. Pearse.

Delta is then in a better position to lobby for additional flights to China if it is granted initial access into the market. And since there is currently no flight that connects the Southeast U.S. to China, the airline is seen as the top contender for new access, Mr. Pearse said.

But liberalized air travel agreements between the U.S. and China mean that Hartsfield-Jackson will have to be prepared to handle an increase in air travel demand – something that the Federal Aviation Administration said was a challenge for U.S. airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson, during a visit here May 15.

“All of this liberalization and increased demand is something that makes our job of advancing levels of capacity and improving infrastructure very difficult. But we know that it’s important,” Mr. Pearse said.

Funding for airport infrastructure development, which Mr. Pearse said is crucial to increase passenger capacity, is being debated in Congress.

Airports support an increase in passenger facility charges to finance their own development projects, but even that would not be enough to fund the necessary improvements needed by airports nationwide, he said.

“Maybe we have to get more creative about how we finance airport development,” he said, suggesting European and Asian business models that charge higher fees to airlines that use airports at peak travel hours as an option.

In the U.S., he said, carriers are typically not charged higher fees to operate at airports during peak travel hours.

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