- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

Flying to Europe may get easier. An “open skies” agreement is on the table that would permit every European and American airline to fly between any European Union (EU) city and any U.S. city, abolishing cumbersome, decades-old regulations, including the restriction that only four carriers can fly from London’s Heathrow Airport, the busiest in the world, to cities in the United States.

Restrictions on the number of flights and types of aircraft would likewise be lifted. European carriers would no longer be banned from flying to the United States from cities outside of their country of origin, which in turn would open the door to acquisitions and consolidations in the European airline industry. The EU Transport Council convenes Thursday, and officials should embrace deregulation, nearly four years in the making, that is good for both consumers and the airline industry.

Opposed to the deal is British Airways, which, along with Virgin Atlantic, operates the largest number of the lucrative U.S.-Heathrow flights that would face more competition. British Airways President Martin Broughton went so far as to call the deal a “con-trick,” perpetrated because “the greedy Americans want Heathrow.”

Mr. Broughton isn’t alone. Across the pond there is a belief that Europe has made too many concessions and the United States too few. U.S. limits on foreign ownership of U.S. airlines (currently restricted to 49.9 percent of total equity) and regulations preventing foreign carriers from operating domestic routes are cited as points of contention, but the latter, at least, disingenuously so. That American carriers can operate intra-EU routes — something they rarely do — and European carriers are barred from flying U.S. domestic routes is not in fact a double standard. The latter involves operating within a sovereign country and the former between countries. Both U.S. and EU negotiators have, furthermore, agreed to a second round of negotiations beginning two months after the agreement goes into effect. To cast this as anything but a win-win for both sides, and for all consumers, is misleading — betraying a desire to maintain outdated protectionism.

Both sides would benefit economically. Over five years, the agreement could generate close to $16 billion, create 80,000 jobs between the United States and the EU and, by the fifth year, produce a market 34 percent larger than without the deal, according to the vice president of the European Transport Commission.

Not all airline executives are as fearful of competition. Glenn Tilton, head of United Airlines, wrote in favor of the deregulation agreement yesterday in the Financial Times, even though his airline is one of the four that would face new competition for U.S.-Heathrow routes. From an industry standpoint, Mr. Tilton recognizes “the long-term benefit of maintaining momentum towards international aviation deregulation.”

For consumers, the benefits from injecting greater competition and market-based pricing into trans-Atlantic transportation are unassailable. European transportation officials should use their meetings on Thursday and Friday to approve the so-called open skies agreement and liberalize international air travel.

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