Leo Schefer: Joined up thinking

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The new US-European Union Open Skies pact offers real chances to address looming transatlantic issues such as the environment and security, says Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force and a long-time advocate for liberalisation

An opportunity has been created in the first phase of the US-EU air transport Open Skies agreement that should be seized by the aviation community and those it serves. Article 18 of the agreement requires consultation to avoid unilateral acts by either side, and sets up a joint committee to "conduct consultations", to review implementation of the US-EU pact and to "develop co-operation" on a broad range of civil aviation-­related issues.

The range extends from the "social effects of the agreement" to "fostering expert level exchanges on new legislative or regulatory initiatives", including "security, safety, the environment, aviation infrastructure (including slots) and consumer protection".

With security and environmental concerns in mind, it is highly probable that transportation statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic see Article 18 as a useful check upon the narrowly focused zeal of some of their own colleagues in other branches of government. For example, in the US, today's focus on aviation security currently is being applied in a short-sighted ­manner regardless of the detrimental impact on the traveller and thus on the economy. The requirement for security with a smile in a free society does not enter the equation.

And in Europe, again with a complete disregard for air transport's vital role in the functioning of the economy, legislators who have been pushed by popular opinion to do something about global warming have seized upon aviation, just 2% of the greenhouse gas problem, rather than public electricity/heat, which is 35% of the problem.

Some Europeans are even calling for curbs on low-fare air travel, arguing that low fares stimulate unnecessary travel and thus unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions. Like security ­interests in the US, Europe's green ­zealots would impose their desires ­beyond their own borders.

Committees have a chequered history, so it would be all too easy for the Article 18 joint committee to slide into a Sargasso Sea of bureaucratic inertia. Neither side should let that happen. The Article 18 joint committee ­provides a rare opportunity to temper the corrosive effects of domestic sound bite politics on both sides of the ­Atlantic with factually based ­diplomacy and common sense.

The US-EU agreement creates a monumental change. There always is resistance to change and the collective "they" always has a problem for every solution. The joint committee was created under the leadership of John Byerly and Daniel Calleja to provide a forum in which to resolve, in a spirit of co-operation, the higher level problems that can be expected to bedevil the agreement's implementation.

The joint committee is required by the US-EU agreement to review progress on the whole spectrum of aviation issues, from slots, to the creation of a common understanding with regard to "airline fitness and citizenship", and to develop responses to social concerns "found to be legitimate". The joint committee also is required to "maximise the benefits to consumers, airlines, labour, and communities on both sides of the Atlantic, by extending the agreement to include third countries", to seek a common approach to international organisations and to ­"operate on the basis of consensus".

Air transportation is a means, not an end, and it thus provides a tremendous economic magnifier, not for the air transport industry, but for the regions served, and thus for the employment stimulated in many industries. Business today locates where it has good airport access, and thus world reach. The growth in technology industry jobs in American cities two years after the launch of new transatlantic services and the projected impact of the US-EU agreement upon EU employment is well documented.

Increased freedom

The individual airline is not the critical element what matters is the increased freedom for airlines to provide service to a region's economy.

Economic growth is the major benefit to come from both phases of the US-EU pact. Given sustained leadership and vision, the joint committee offers a way to maximise economic as well as airline benefits. But much more is needed. Airports, airlines and labour should join forces to create an environment in which the joint committee can work for the strategic benefit of all.

With both sides facing issues in the implementation of phase one, moving forward to create a North Atlantic Aviation Area in phase two is a tall order. It's also why the joint committee must have the leadership, vision and will to succeed otherwise we all will lose as phase one issues fester and ­become polarised.

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