FAA bumps Vietnam to Category 1 safety rating, direct flights to follow

Yesterday, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted Vietnam a “Category 1” safety rating as defined by the regulatory body’s International Safety Assessment (IASA) program. The new rating will enable airlines based in Vietnam to establish direct service to the United States which, will soon boost belly cargo capacity moving out of one of the hottest markets for air cargo.

The FAA safety rating is based on the agency’s August audit of Vietnam’s compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards for personnel licensing, operations and airworthiness – all carrier’s seeking to operate flights or code shares to the United States are required to meet the ICAO standards. Vietnam had been expected to pass the audit.

Initially, the rating will drive the expansion of direct passenger services and code shares, but an improved bilateral aviation treaty between the two countries could follow. Vietnam Airlines, the Southeast  Asian nation’s state-owned operator has long been eager to launch direct passenger flights to the United States, and is now expected to apply for the authority to do so.  The carrier’s long-haul widebody fleet comprises of twelve A350-900s, and eleven 787-9s which would be suitable to open up flights to the West Coast of the United States from Vietnam. As of today, no U.S.-based carriers have stepped forward with plans to launch direct flights to Vietnam, or expand the scope of code share agreements with Vietnam Airlines  – but that too could change.

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Despite the limited number of direct freighter connections, and the nonexistence of passenger services connecting the two markets, cargo flows between the U.S. and Vietnam continue to burgeon. In recent years, AirBridgeCargo and Etihad Airways have launched direct maindeck flights between the two countries. A number of other freighter operators, such as Cathay Pacific, Cargolux and Emirates have been able to effectively utilize their respective hubs in Asia, Europe, the Middle East for transshipment flows moving between the United States and Vietnam.

Carriers reliant on belly capacity have also managed to boost volumes without increasing direct flights. Delta Cargo told Air Cargo World that it’s joint-venture with Korean Air and agreements has helped it establish a presence in Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City. “Korean Air has multiple daily flights which connect to our joint venture’s Seoul-United States capacity, offering a leading transfer product to 11 destinations in the U.S.,” said Eric Anderson, director sales Asia Pacific, Delta Cargo.

Looking ahead, expansion of Vietnam’s aviation sector will require additional airport infrastructure. Landing slots at the country’s two largest airports in Hanoi (HAN) and Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) are tight, and opportunities for expansion are limited.  There are signs, however, that the government will accelerate airport construction programs. Earlier this week, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister, Trinh Dinh Dung called for the acceleration of the Long Thanh International Airport, which, if constructed, could alleviate congestion at SGN.

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