Obama: Open minds and skies

Philadelphia
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Renewing diplomacy by fortifying current US alliances and forging new partnerships with other countries represents a key element of Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda. But the man who has promised a "new era" of international co-operation has not yet indicated how he will handle hot-button issues facing the international air transport scene.

From a broad perspective, it is largely expected an Obama-led administration will maintain the USA's long-running agenda to liberalise aviation accords with other nations.

"The USA has pursued an open skies policy across three presidential administrations - under the first President Bush, President Clinton and President George W Bush - with strong and consistent support from both parties in the US Congress and from US airline, labour and airport stakeholders," says John Byerly, US deputy assistant secretary of state for transport affairs and the country's chief negotiator on open skies.

"Today, we have open skies agreements in place with over 90 countries. No-one, to my knowledge, has called for a change of course in America's commitment to open skies and the vigorous, free and fair competition in international aviation markets that it encourages." Less clear is how Obama's team will handle the thorny issues that have sprung up as the seeds of liberalisation have taken root.

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On 30 March 2008 phase one of a landmark European Union-US open skies pact went into effect, replacing 21 bilateral agreements between EU member states and the USA and removing all restrictions on routes, prices and weekly flight frequencies.

Phase one open skies has already yielded "impressive results", says Byerly, pointing to "major market openings in Ireland, at London Heathrow and in airline codesharing arrangements".

NO RESTRICTIONS

For phase two, the EU wants to see implementation of a transatlantic "open aviation area" - a single air transport market between both sides with free flows of investment and no restrictions on air services, including access to the domestic markets of both parties.

There also remains a possibility that European environmental constraints on the exercise of traffic freedoms may figure in the second-stage negotiations.

Some suspect Obama's team will adopt a protectionist stance over the EU's requests to ease restrictions governing foreign ownership of US airlines, and cabotage rights.

"The last thing a Democratic administration is going to do is to allow foreign carriers to have any additional input or control over US carriers," says consultant Michael Boyd, noting that the unions "aren't going to allow that and this is going to be a very pro-union administration".

Pilot leaders at American Airlines, for example, have said they believe the new administration and the Democratic congressional majority will be more empathetic to their concerns about outsourcing and cabotage.

PRESSURE

But pressure from the EU is intense as a third round of second-stage open skies talks get set to begin later in the spring.

Daniel Calleja, director of the European Commission's air transport directorate and Europe's lead open skies negotiator, recently highlighted the deadline set in phase one of the open skies deal. This deadline states that if no second-stage agreement can be reached by 2010, either side has the right to withdraw the traffic rights secured under phase one.

While the USA "has indicated its interest in discussing the complex issues that surround cross-border investment in airlines" during second-stage talks, says Byerly, the nation is not negotiating because it has a deadline. "The USA and EU can accomplish so much more if we work together to explore issues and focus on success rather than spinning wheels with dire predictions of what will happen if one side or the other is at some future point not satisfied with the pace of progress," he says.

At the same time, the USA's top open skies negotiator does not want to see previous gains unravel. Byerly warns it would be "deeply harmful" to the interests of airlines, airports, workers, cities, and economies on both sides of the Atlantic "to threaten the fundamental framework for transatlantic aviation established by the US-EU air transport agreement".