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House introduces Fair and Open Skies Act

House aviation committee lawmakers have introduced a bill intended to prohibit the US from granting commercial aviation permits to foreign carriers that could potentially undermine labor and competition standards.

The "Fair and Open Skies Act" would require the US Department of Transportation to ensure new permits granted to foreign airlines meet the labor and competition standards set by the US-EU-Norway-Iceland Air Transport Agreement. The full text of the bill is available online.

The main sponsor of the bill, Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, says some foreign carriers seek to sidestep regulations by basing parts of their businesses in different countries what he calls "flags of convenience" operations. Such competitors, he says, enable a "race to the bottom" in aviation that threaten the ability of US to compete internationally.

"This bipartisan bill protects American jobs from predatory and unfair competition, and it protects the American flying public from deception,” DeFazio says.

Union members stood with DeFazio and other lawmakers on the Capitol building lawn on 10 July to announce the bill. Those included Air Line Pilots Association president Joe DePete, who criticised flag of convenience operations that "threaten to erode the proactive safety culture that we demand and that we have fostered here in the US”.

“These venue-shopping efforts allow the airlines to undermine workers’ pay and benefits", DePete says.

The bill resembles legislation DeFazio introduced in 2016 in response to a permit granted to Norwegian Air International, which he says established itself in Ireland to avoid Norway’s labor protections. The airline also contracted with a Singapore-based firm to provide flight and cabin crews on cheap short-term contracts.

Not everyone in the US aviation community supports the bill. The US Airlines for Open Skies lobbying group says in a statement that the bill addresses "a problem that does not exist".

"This unnecessary bill only invites retaliation by our international Open Skies partners, with the flying public shouldering the greatest consequences", says the lobbying group, which includes Atlas Air Worldwide, FedEx, JetBlue Airways and the Cargo Airline Association.

This bill also escalates pressure on the Trump administration amid conflicting lobbying efforts from different sides of the aviation industry about whether Qatar Airways has violated international agreements through its 49% stake in Air Italy.

Executives of Atlas Air, JetBlue Airways and FedEx have warned US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao that retaliation against Qatar and Air Italy could have a “crippling impact on US passenger carriers seeking new service to the EU and halt any ability to bring down ticket prices in the outrageously expensive transatlantic market”.

A rival camp of companies called the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies has said investments by Qatar in Air Italy create an unfair market for employees of US airlines by violating a commitment made in 2018 by the Doha-based carrier not to add new flights to the US market. That partnership includes American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.

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