Protectionism In Air Travel Hurts American Consumers

Ron Phillips, director of the Monroe (La.) Regional Airport, said it is ???well past time??? for the Obama administration to step up and protect the U.S. airline industry from unfair competition.

???We???re happy to compete with anyone,??? Phillips is quoted as saying by the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies, an Astroturf trade group organized by the Big Three U.S. airlines. ???But not when they break their agreements with our country.???

He is part of a campaign by the group, which wants to change longstanding trade agreements because three airlines from the Middle East ??? Qatar Airways, Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways ??? are gaining market share on long haul routes to and from the United States.

The U.S. carriers want the government to tear up its Open Skies agreements with the three airlines and force them out of the routes to the Middle East that have become profitable for them and expanded tourism and trade here.

What some of the world???s largest airlines are demanding ???is pure protectionism,??? wrote Jenns Flottau of the respected Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine. ???They want their governments to protect them from new market entrants that are beginning to dominate one part of the long-haul market.???

But it???s unfair, say Phillips and the group, for U.S airlines to have to compete against airlines that receive subsidies from their governments. They cite the 11-story terminal in the Dubai airport that benefits Emirates Airlines, accounting practices it says have helped Etihad achieve profitability and a land swap that benefitted Qatar Airlines.

Before Phillips gets too carried away, he may want to see what the airline that got its start in his airport is up to. Because it turns out Delta Airlines, which has grown from a tiny Northeast Louisiana crop dusting firm into the world???s largest passenger carrier, is benefitting from a little government largesse itself.

Not only has it persuaded the city of Atlanta not to pursue building a second airport, even though Atlanta is the largest American city not served by two airports, it has convinced the city to pursue a massive expansion of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport ??? which happens to be headquarters for Delta.

Already one of the busiest airports in the world, Hartsfield-Jackson will add a sixth runway, replace aging parking garages, build an end-around taxiway to speed takeoffs and landings and extend the Plane Train people mover to perhaps new gates. The city and state are investing in a giant corporate presence, and Delta is profitable and growing. In fact, it???s looking to add 1,800 flight attendants.

The point is Delta and the other legacy U.S. carriers are not hurting. They are simply trying to hold on to control over routes where competent challengers are upping the ante in terms of service, price and convenience and are competing with their European operations.

They claim the expansion of the Middle East airlines into these routes hurts smaller airports. But if people want to visit Ron Phillips in Monroe, La., they can fly Emirates, Qatar Airways or Etihad from Dubai to Houston or Dallas. But then, they will have to ride on a regional carrier, probably Delta Express, to reach Monroe.

The big three also claim the added capacity somehow hurts air traffic. But the numbers don???t bear that out either. Early reports are that this year???s summer travel season has been one of the strongest in years in terms of bringing foreign visitors to the U.S.

A report from the Astrotuf group singled out Austin, Texas, as a place where the conduct of the Middle East airlines has hurt local traffic. Austin was one of the cities designated by Brand USA, the public-private partnership to promote travel from abroad to the U.S., as a target for growing tourism outside the traditional gateway cities. The effort included streamlining visa and customs operations and increased marketing efforts.

But far from being a problem for Austin, the program has been a boom. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport set a passenger record in June, its third million-plus-passenger month this year, sixth such record in the last 16 months and the 65th month of the last 66 in which passenger traffic at the airport has increased.

This is no time to retreat from Open Skies. We???re just beginning to recover from the Lost Decade of international air travel, when protectionist regulations resulted in a loss of 68 million visitors, more than $500 billion in lost spending and more than 440,000 jobs lost.

The problem is this will get decided at the regulatory level. Voters won???t be involved, nor will their elected representatives in Washington. It will be up to the bureaucrats of the Obama administration to stand up for free trade, protect Americans??? rights to travel as they please, benefit from others traveling here and to ensure our skies truly remain open.

Will they be up for the challenge? Who knows, but it wouldn???t hurt if they were to hear from a lot of concerned Americans on this topic.

Brian McNicoll is a conservative columnist and freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va. He is a former senior writer for the Heritage Foundation and former director of communications for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.