Although the recent visit of the surprisingly quotable and telegenic Zhu Rhongji, China's prime minister, failed to pry open the door for his country's admission to the World Trade Organization, his presence in the U.S. nevertheless highlighted a historic air-service agreement that is certain to energize leisure and business travel between the two countries.

The pact, signed Friday after 18 months of intensive talks, liberalizes a restrictive bilateral aviation agreement that had outlived its usefulness. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in fact, noted that the inhibitions built into the former agreement had retarded air services between the two nations, calling the three-year deal "good news for our communities, our airlines and their customers."

"Good news," indeed, it appears for travelers and travel agents alike.

For starters, the weekly budget of 27 flights allowed each country increases in stages until the total levels off at 54, double the old limit, starting April 1, 2001. Also effective immediately, the three airlines operating to the mainland -- United, Northwest and Federal Express -- can offer flights from any U.S. city, with United reportedly already primed to launch nonstop service between San Francisco and Shanghai.

Further, in 2001, another airline can join the three operators, and all four ultimately will be able to offer code-share flights to 23 cities in China. Until last week's agreement, U.S. carriers were limited to serving only Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. More flights, more cities, more airlines, more choice.

According to the China National Tourist Organization, fewer than 680,000 people ventured from the U.S. to the mainland in 1998, the last full year under the old aviation agreement. With the wraps off, just watch that figure grow.

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