Pre-election sensitivities have frozen US aviation initiatives by legislators, leaving policy-making in the hands of Washington regulators.

The reluctance of Congress to tackle tough issues is typified by its unwillingness to extend the recently reinstated airline ticket tax past its end-of-year expiry.

Before adjourning for the rest of this year, aviation committee members said they preferred not to renew the tax now but remain 'flexible' until next year.

Elections to Congress are running in parallel with the US presidentials and the decision to defer action on the tax has as much to do with uncertainty over the makeup of next year's legislature as an unresolved dispute over what form the future tax should take. Major US airlines want to scrap it in favour of a user fee based on aircraft size and distance flown rather than ticket price. But Southwest and other low fare carriers claim this proposal is designed to shift more of the tax burden on to them.

The year-long dispute over the tax will have a significant impact on the Federal Aviation Administration's budget, which relies heavily on the levy, leaving anything more than interim funding in limbo through at least the first quarter of 1997.

Congress may be ducking disputes, but the US Department of Transportation has waded into the action itself by proposing to prohibit the CRS parity clauses. The DOT decided to stir up this long-running feud following its own study of CRS practices and complaints from smaller airlines about the vendor-imposed rules that require them to use the same level of CRS service in all systems.

US airlines are deeply divided over this issue. With the notable exception of United, whose Apollo (Galileo) system does not require parity, those airlines with stakes in CRS systems favour the parity rules, while others such as Alaska, Southwest, and Reno Air vehemently oppose them. Their differences have spawned past quarrels and lawsuits.

In response to the DOT's invitation for comments, the Department of Justice has thrown its weight behind the opponents' case demanding that parity clauses should be banned. The DOJ notes that with more than 75 per cent of all CRS revenues coming from airlines, there is still little price competition among CRSs. If airlines could choose different participation levels, the department contends CRSs would become more price competitive on their booking fees.

In another policy initiative, which has again split US airlines into two camps, the DOT is proposing to allow foreign carriers to consolidate and transfer cargo in Alaska. Asian carriers now do this at transfer points in Asia or the Russian far east before flying to the US.

As a result, most US carriers miss out on that business. But Delta, FedEx, Northwest, and United oppose this change because it would give foreign carriers better access to the US without reciprocal benefits for them.

But despite these objections, the DOT appears likely to allow foreign cargo consolidation in Alaska by any airline except those from Japan or Britain, which are barred due to bilateral disputes. In its preliminary ruling the DOT reasoned that an Alaska exemption will create opportunities for US carriers to forward cargo throughout the whole of the US.

David Knibb

Source: Airline Business