With the New Hampshire presidential primary tomorrow night, many in the airline industry are asking the important question of whether a newly elected Democrat or Republican Administration would be best for a consumer-first outcome of the year-long and unresolved Open Skies dispute. Our 20-year Open Skies policy results in breakthrough agreements between the U.S. and foreign governments for the ultimate benefit of consumers through greater access to international destinations, lower airfares and innovations in customer service.
This controversy was created when Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines (the “Big Three”) protested that competition from Gulf carriers Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways was unfair and demanded that the Obama Administration restrict access to U.S. markets. Consumer groups, airports and other U.S. airlines, on the other hand, saw it as a Big Three gambit for U.S. government-imposed commercial protectionism.
Aviation policy development has historically been a bipartisan endeavor in Washington for the benefit of consumers and the good of the country. In recent years, as represented by the Orwellian-named Transparent Airfares Act of 2014, which would have increased airfare opacity as well as Congressional letters urging the Obama Administration to both block Norwegian Air International’s application to serve the U.S. and to roll back Gulf carrier access to U.S. markets, aviation-related bipartisanship is stronger than ever. However, and sadly, 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 necessary to answer the question. Voters are angered by a Washington elite whom they believe are not looking out for their interests as evidenced by the Congressional initiatives enumerated above. With the Open Skies issue there are two positions that any one of the campaigns of either party could embrace for political purposes. One 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. Another would be to mistakenly conflate U.S. gold-standard Open Skies agreements with global trade deals pushed by some Republican and Democratic candidates as disadvantageous to U.S. workers’ interests and, in so doing, inadvertently benefit the Big Three over hundreds of millions of consumers.