Rich Thomaselli | February 08, 2016 12:00 PM ET
Will A New President Affect Open Skies Decision?
It has been more than a year now since the respective chief executive officers from the big three U.S. airlines – American, Delta and United – presented the Obama administration with a compelling 55-page document.
In it, they allege that their counterparts from the Middle East Gulf carriers – Emirates, Etihad and Qatar – have accepted $42 billion in subsidies from the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar over a 14-year period. These subsidies, the U.S. airlines say, go against the Open Skies agreements between the respective countries – which allows for landing rights between two countries without government interference – and dramatically alters the landscape of international travel, disrupting fair competition for those lucrative routes and often costing American jobs, they claim.
The Gulf airlines have refuted these claims, saying that the subsidies are investments and loans that must be paid back – and suggesting that U.S. airlines are jealous over the caliber of service between the carriers and that they actually create American jobs with new routes.
With that 55-page report, U.S. airlines have asked the administration to open negotiations with Qatar and the UAE over the Open Skies agreements, with, presumably, an eye on changing some of the wording of the agreements. At the very least, the Big Three U.S. carriers have asked for a freeze on any new routes opened between the Gulf and U.S. cities, something the Middle East carriers have been introducing almost monthly in the last year.
But, again, it’s been a year. If the Obama administration lets this slide for a new administration to handle, the question becomes: Which of the presidential candidates are advantageous to either side?
Initially, my first thought was it would be more advantageous to the folks who want to keep the status quo on Open Skies to have a Democrat elected, as a more liberal president would want to encourage the continuation of such aviation policies among the U.S. and nearly 200 countries. Many believe this is the way the Obama administration is leaning, hence the delay.
Then I thought it would be more advantageous to have a Republican conservative be elected for the folks who want to re-open the Open Skies negotiations to get a better deal for the three major U.S. carriers. This would be a Donald Trump-type who has already come out swinging on immigration and, as a businessman, might be more prone to side with those who say the alleged subsidies are hurting American workers.
One would only wish it was that easy.
“Aviation policy development has historically been a bipartisan endeavor in Washington for the benefit of consumers and the good of the country,” says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a group that backs the current Open Skies agreements. “In recent years, as represented by the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014 and Congressional letters urging the Obama Administration to both block Norwegian Air International’s application to serve the U.S. and to initiate government discussions to restrict Gulf carrier access to our markets, the bipartisanship is stronger than ever.”
But – there’s always a but – Mitchell said the policy objective has shifted from the good of the country to the demands of special interests with deep pockets and armies of lobbyists.
“In this presidential election cycle we have candidates with liberal, conservative, outsider and populist labels, which somewhat complicates the analysis,” Mitchell said. “With the Open Skies issue there are two positions that any one of the campaigns of either party could embrace for political purposes.”
One, Mitchell said, would be to tap into the popular discontent with Washington and the powerful influence of special interests, and stand up for Open Skies, competition and the consumer.
The other would be to associate Open Skies agreements with global trade deals pushed by candidates on both sides of the aisle, who believe the current situation is disadvantageous to U.S. workers’ interests.
Either way, it’s a difficult decision.
The question is, which president’s administration is going to make the call?
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