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Chris Jones

Korean Air Plans Las Vegas Flights

24 February 2006

LAS VEGAS -- The heart of Southern Nevada's travel industry will soon get a regular touch of Seoul.

Lee Jong-hee, president of Korean Air, last week told The Korea Times his carrier will launch direct Las Vegas service by year's end.

McCarran International Airport and Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority representatives said Thursday that talks with Korean Air heated up more than two years ago and are now "in advanced stages."

No agreement has been signed.

If negotiations are successful, South Korea's national carrier would arrive at a critical juncture for a city hoping to vastly increase Asian visitation. Adding the world's second-largest cargo carrier could also spike international shipping through Clark County.

"Seoul Incheon International Airport is as fine a hub as there is," said Harry Kassap, McCarran's market development administrator. "It's modern, efficient, passenger friendly and clean. Everything we've investigated with Korean Air looks at maximum connectivity from Hong Kong, Taiwan, (mainland) China and even Japan."

Korean Air offers direct and widespread access to its homeland's nearly 49 million residents.

The 37-year-old carrier has an extensive network linking countries as far away as India, Australia and Southeast Asia. Its 116 aircraft operate nearly 400 passenger flights per day to 90 cities and 31 countries.

In 2004, Korean Air was named the world's top international cargo carrier by the International Air Transport Association. Including domestic and international cargo, only FedEx Corp. carried more goods. Comparable cargo data from 2005 has not been released.

Los Angeles International Airport is saturated, Kassap said. But some cargo now trucked between Los Angeles and other Western cities could instead enter or leave the country here.

Penny Pfaelzer, a Phoenix-based Korean Air spokeswoman, said Thursday the airline has no firm launch date for Las Vegas service, nor has it set a number of weekly round-trips.

Kassap said the 301-seat Boeing 777-200 would likely work the route. Outbound flights could stop in Los Angeles to boost sales of lucrative business- and first-class tickets, Lee said.

Kassap and Cam Usher, the convention authority's international sales director, traveled to Seoul twice in the past six weeks to negotiate with Korean Air, whose 11 North American destinations include San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.

South Korea produced 68,000 Las Vegas visitors in 2004, the most recent data available. That was sixth-best among overseas nations. Korean Air has recently flown two or three chartered flights here per year, including one around last month's International Consumer Electronics Show.

The convention authority has for years maintained a foreign office in Seoul. In December 2002, its Korean representative, Sonia Hong, said Korean Air was reluctant to commit to Las Vegas because South Korea's government was opposed to its citizens losing large amounts of money in foreign casinos.

Lee mentioned gambling but highlighted Las Vegas' reputation as a world-class trade show and convention host.

"As time goes on and Las Vegas' worldwide reputation evolves ... the reputation of this being a gaming-only destination has less of a stigma," said Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president of marketing for the convention authority.

Air service between Las Vegas and Asia has produced mixed results. Northwest Airlines was the first to offer trans-Pacific service here when it launched twice-weekly flights to Tokyo in June 1998.

Japan Airlines followed that October, and thanks to its near-stranglehold on Japanese tour groups, pushed Northwest to abandon its Las Vegas-Tokyo service in April 2001.

JAL is the only carrier offering direct service from Asia, but its three weekly nonstops will stop Sept. 30, the company said. The Tokyo-based carrier is losing money and hopes to rebound by eliminating several routes served by older, fuel-guzzling Boeing 747-400s.

Korean Air, by contrast, increased its operating profit by 12.6 percent last year, thanks in part to solid growth in international passenger traffic, the company said in its year-end earnings report.

Singapore Airlines briefly offered direct service from its homeland via Hong Kong. But poor ticket sales forced it from McCarran in April 2003, less than nine months after its local debut.

Singapore Air's quick departure was fueled by traveler concern over the war in Iraq and Asia's severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak. The same issues forced JAL to cancel several flights here in spring 2003.

The latest Asian carrier to enter the market was Philippine Airlines, whose first flight from Manila touched down at McCarran in March 2004. It operates four weekly round-trips, including stops each way in Vancouver.

Philippine Air's 2005 passenger traffic was up 40 percent from the prior year, when it carried more than 44,000 local passengers in just nine months of operation.