- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

From combined dispatches

SAN FRANCISCO — United Airlines yesterday took off on the first commercial flight to Vietnam from the United States since 1975.

The flight is the first such service by an American air carrier since the end of the Vietnam War and comes amid growing trade and tourism ties between the nations.

The inaugural United flight from San Francisco to Ho Chi Minh City carried U.S. and Vietnamese officials, business executives and others, including actor David Hasselhoff, who was traveling to Vietnam with a charity group.

Flight UA869, a Boeing 747, was scheduled to stop in Hong Kong before landing late today in the city formerly known as Saigon. United will begin the flight daily between Ho Chi Minh City and San Francisco on Sunday. It has no plans to expand flights to the Washington area.

State-owned Vietnam Airlines has said it may begin flying to the West Coast of the United States, probably San Francisco, in late 2005.

Speaking in July shortly before the end of his term as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Raymond Burghard hailed the beginning of air links as an important landmark on the road to the full normalization of relations.

“Direct air connections are the next logical steps and this should further increase trade, tourism and cultural relations between our two peoples,” he said.

United, the second largest U.S. carrier, says it is hoping to cash in on a mix of Vietnamese-Americans and their friends and relatives traveling in both directions, a growing number of Vietnam-bound U.S. tourists and expanding business travel.

More than 1.3 million Vietnamese live in the United States, many of whom fled the Southeast Asian nation after 1975. In recent years, the Vietnamese government has been encouraging them to return in a bid to tap their business acumen and financial resources.

“Certainly, the market holds a huge amount of potential; it is the fastest growing aviation market in Asia right now and probably one of the two fastest economies,” said Stephan Roth, spokesman for United parent company UAL Corp.

Vietnamese air travel is expected to grow 10.5 percent per year for the next 10 years, according to the International Air Transport Association, as the communist nation’s economy nearly matches the pace of China.

Mr. Roth, however, said the new service would take time to show profits.

“For a market that has not had service before, you need to build up the service,” he said. “You have to build up demand a little bit in order to make it economically viable.”

In October, United, which filed for bankruptcy protection in late 2002, announced that it would start reducing the number of its domestic flights, while increasing its more profitable international routes.

Many in California’s Vietnamese emigre community largely oppose relations with the communist government of Hanoi.

Washington and Hanoi established diplomatic ties in 1995, two decades after the end of the conflict in Indochina that cost the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and around three million Vietnamese.

The airline, fighting to emerge from bankruptcy protection, reworked its ads for Vietnamese-language radio after San Francisco stations suggested changes to take account of political sensitivities, said United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski.

Draft advertisements had referred to Vietnam’s most populous city as “Ho Chi Minh City,” using the formal name that it was given in 1976 when it was renamed after the revolutionary founder of the communist republic.

Ms. Urbanski said the advertisements will now refer to simply Vietnam or “Ho Chi Minh City — also known as Saigon.”

“We wanted to please all our of customers so we will use both names,” she said.

The last U.S. flight to leave Vietnam was by defunct Pan American in 1975.

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