Fifty thousand members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have a direct stake their livelihoods in a healthy and competitive U.S. airline industry.
Unfortunately, at a time when efforts need to be focused on ensuring the major airlines’ viability and restoring the confidence of the traveling public, debate over issues involving the busy U.S.-London market is creating a disturbing distraction.
At issue is a proposed alliance between American Airlines and British Airways, and ongoing negotiations between the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom over the so-called open skies agreement.
American Airlines and British Airways are asking the U.S. Department of Transportation for immunity from antitrust laws in order to operate between the United States and the United Kingdom as though they were one airline. They claim that an open skies agreement, that could be approved as part of an antitrust agreement, would enable other U.S. carriers to fly to London’s already congested Heathrow airport, which all airlines but American and United are now barred from doing under a 1977 treaty.
To listen to the proponents, it would seem that everybody comes out a winner. However, there is simply no realistic way to evaluate the impact of the proposed American-British Airways alliance until the worldwide aviation crisis stabilizes. In these circumstances, there should not be any rush to conclude an accord that may prove harmful to U.S. airlines, their employees and consumers.
In the event the alliance is approved, every indication suggests that fares will increase by approximately 30 percent in the U.S.-U.K. market, which serves some 9.4 million travelers every year. At the same time, monopoly positions will be created with no viable remedies, and there will be no real competitive opportunities for U.S. airlines that do not serve Heathrow.
Given limited available ground facilities and the severe restrictions on takeoff and landing slots at Heathrow, any open skies agreement would prove hollow. U.S. airlines not now serving Heathrow would be effectively barred from adding service between this country and that vital gateway to the continent.
For example, Northwest, which employs 11,000 Teamster-represented flight attendants, would not be able to transfer either its Detroit-London Gatwick or Minneapolis-Gatwick service to Heathrow, nor add service to Heathrow from its Seattle and Memphis hubs. Similarly, Continental, where 4,000 Teamster members work as mechanics, would be unable to provide Heathrow flights from its strategic hubs at Cleveland, Houston and Newark-New York.
Ironically, any resulting U.S.-U.K. open skies agreement might become moot in the wake of a pending decision by the European Court of Justice, which is considering the very legitimacy of similar agreements the United States has reached with European Union members. Therefore, it would be ill-advised and contrary to U.S. national interests to approve an anti-competitive alliance between American Airlines and British Airways in order to secure hollow open skies treaty rights, when even those hollow rights would be subject to abrogation, renegotiations and changes by the European Court.
The fate of the proposed alliance rests squarely on the shoulders of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta. I have asked Mr. Mineta to suspend consideration of the American-British Airways application until a more appropriate time when its competitive effects can be objectively analyzed and the current emergency that is confronting aviation worldwide abates.
After all, given all that has happened in recent months, there are much larger issues that will shape the future health and competitiveness of the U.S. airline industry not to mention affect the jobs of 50,000 hard-working Teamsters.
James P. Hoffa is general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.