Sir Michael Bishop, chairman of the UK's bmi group has more personal experience of the long road to US-Europe Open Skies than any airline leader on either side of the Atlantic. And after 30 years of campaigning his wait is almost over, and it will be well worth it for carriers and passengers alike

I've lost count of the number of people who have told me what a "nice surprise" it must have been to see the announcement on 22 March of an Open Skies deal between Europe and the USA. For many, it seemed almost unbelievable that the two had finally reached an agreement which would see proper competition across the world's busiest international air routes.

After a decade of false starts, acrimonious wrangling and red herrings galore, many people on both sides of the Atlantic had given up hope.

Not me.

I've always been a believer in the inexorable progress of deregulation in air travel. For almost thirty years, I have campaigned for increasing liberalisation of our skies. And for thirty years I have seen a consistent pattern being followed.

Michael Bishop, W200When we started to campaign in the late 1970s for the right to fly from Heathrow to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast in the first head-to-head competition with British Airways, experts lined up to tell me it would never happen. And then told me what a "nice surprise" it must have been to be able to launch those routes just a few years later.

We also had regular "nice surprises" with our campaigns for increasing deregulation of European air travel over the late Eighties and into the Nineties.

Admittedly, none took quite such a long time to come to fruition as transatlantic Open Skies. We first launched our Make the Air Fair campaign in 1999, when we were able to show overwhelming public support for change. Then, the cost burden to British business from the closed US market from Heathrow was more than £2 billion a year ($3.2 billion) - a situation which has improved little in each of the seven years since.

One reason it took such a long time was the red herrings I referenced earlier. For years, the existing operators have been able to delay liberalisation by focusing arguments on often quite tangential issues - Fly America, ownership rules, domestic market access and so on - that have managed to derail meaningful progress, often at the last minute.

You can understand why. The profits windfall from these routes was significant to say the least. Virgin Atlantic and British Airways could charge up to twice as much as other European airlines when it came to full business class fares across the Atlantic. One should not underestimate the importance of these routes to either airline.

It led to very effective blocking moves. American negotiators still talk about the day they came to meetings in London with pens poised ready to sign an agreement, only to find last minute lobbying by the UK airlines had led to a U-turn by the British team. That was more than five years ago and indicative of a pretty consistent pattern.

I was always confident, however, that common sense would prevail and that legislators would eventually focus on the interests of the 17 million UK-US travellers rather than those of the four airlines allowed to operate from Heathrow to the States.

The campaign succeeds

On 22 March, those interests finally did prevail and we saw the announcement on Open Skies for which we had long campaigned. Genuine competition was finally on its way.

How much and how quickly things will change is now open to question. Certainly we will see new routes and new airlines flying from Heathrow to the USA next year - from bmi at the very least - but I suspect we will not be alone. But I think it will take a few years for the true impact to be felt, much as it did when Europe's skies were deregulated.

I'm not completely convinced of the likelihood of ticket prices for as little as $12! Prices will definitely fall as capacity rises and the choice of direct destinations improves.

One thing of which I am certain is that the market will grow as a result of deregulation: just as it did in the UK, just as it did in Europe, just as it has done in every deregulated air market in the world.

Virgin and BA may not be so pleased about the "nice surprise" they were given in March. But over time deregulation will prove to have been an incredibly positive move for everyone else - however long we had to wait for it.

Source: Airline Business