With its Beyond Open Skies ministerial meeting in Chicago, the USA has finally brought the debate about bilaterals out into the open. From now on, the issue will not be easy to force back into the shadows.

It is all too easy to be cynical about what happened at Chicago. Certainly, the host, US Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, outlined a new vision for the 21st century of a world beyond bilaterals. The good and the great of world aviation duly made approving noises, accompanied by expansive promises to pursue the matter further. But, as the sceptics may well ask, what concrete proposals did they actually sign up to? The answer is none. That, however, would be to miss the point.

Any great policy shift - and this could be one in the making - first requires the right groundwork to be in place: the right political climate, a good economic environment and a sense of momentum. Arguably, for the first time since the world signed up to the original Chicago Convention 55 years ago, those conditions are all indeed aligned.

It is clear that US politicians in general, and Slater in particular, are keen to start the final push towards free trade. Having wrung as much advantage as possible from the open skies policy, something more radical is required. What delegates in Chicago had already begun to call "clear skies".

More important are the political shifts outside North America, and most interestingly across the Atlantic. After long years of internal bickering, Europe is finally emerging, not only with a liberalised single aviation market but keen to make its own voice heard in the world.

Admittedly, attempts by the European Commission (EC) to take over authority for external aviation negotiations have been less than impressive to date. But that could change. Loyola de Palacio, the new transport commissioner, is a formidable operator and the EC vice-president into the bargain. She has already begun to reverse some of the EC's more timid compromises which have often passed for policy making. Many in Brussels believe it is only a matter of time before she gets US negotiations moving, too.

Europe's seriousness about the offer of transatlantic open skies emerged at an EC round table conference in Brussels before the Chicago event. Palacio made no secret of her intention to see the EC involved in shaping a new aviation framework, starting with the Atlantic.

The region's flag carriers agree. Not only have they had a small taste of the benefits on offer from alliances and open skies, but also of the misery that narrow regional competition policy can bring. They seem ready to take their chances on a broader stage. More than that, there is a growing sense within Europe that it will lose influence if it remains disunited and fails to take up this chance to make its voice heard.

Also, the debate is indeed taking place against the backdrop of a relatively benign economic cycle. Neither companies nor politicians are under the kind of financial stress that can make protectionism seem like a good idea. All but a handful of Europe's carriers are now safely in private hands and in profit.

And what of the need for momentum? That, perhaps, is where Slater and his vision come in. The debate is fully out in the open and will be difficult to shut down. If it looks like moving forward, no-one will want to be left out. Witness the attendance in Chicago. The point was eloquently made in the corridors when an Asia-Pacific regulator anxiously reminded his European colleague to "keep talking to us, too".

Even if the EC fails to deliver, a frustrated US administration could start with Singapore and Australasia or South America and wait for others to follow as it did with open skies. Or it could cut its teeth on the cargo sector. It could even crank up the pressure by throwing aviation into world trade talks.

Of course there will be tough hurdles to clear: ownership restrictions and competition policy, to name but two. But those are not the deal-breakers that many suggest. The clash over anti-trust policies will have to be resolved anyway. Moves to an open aviation market merely accelerate the process. "Liberalisation is finding its own way and will continue to do so," in the words of International Civil Aviation Organisation president Dr Assade Kotaite at Chicago.

Ownership too is a question of practical politics. If a European and US airline merged, then, of course, the new company would risk falling foul of the nationality criteria laid down by bilaterals with third countries. But which third country would really relish having that argument with a unified Europe-US aviation area? It is the bilateral that would have to bend, which is rather the point being made at Chicago.

To borrow from some eastern wisdom, even the longest journey starts with a single step. Chicago might just have been that first stride.

Source: Airline Business