Nativism and Protectionism Creeping into Open Skies Debate

Only nice people fly United. And Delta. And American. But those other airlines, the ones with the funny names … no telling what kind of creepy people they let on board.

Take away the varnish and fancy language, and that’s the message of a new report from the Partnership for Fair and Open Skies. The Partnership is an Astro-turf group, led by the big three American airlines, that seeks to keep out foreign competitors so as to keep prices and profit margins on routes through Europe to the Middle East as high as possible.

The big three American airlines are losing market share on these routes, and they want something done about it. They don’t want to match the service, quality of the flying experience or prices of the three airlines that have begun to take significant market share. They want government to seize that market share and give it back to them.

They decry massive “subsidies” given to these airlines by their governments, which they say provides an unfair advantage over our airlines. They don’t mention the infrastructure built for them, the quirky tax ruling that allowed them to pay no tax on the millions of dollars they collect in bag fees or the ways in which airports are designed and operated to benefit them and limit their competitors.

It’s not working. One friend, who regularly travels between North America and the Middle East, said he would not even consider using a U.S. airline so superior is the service on Etihad, his favorite, and Emirates and Qatar Airways as well.

So now, the airlines and their Astro-turf “Partnership” are crying “security.” As in, the safety of all Americans depends on the U.S. tearing up agreements with Middle East countries that allow our airlines and theirs to compete against one another.

Of the dozens of Open Skies agreements we have, all virtually identical, they target only these three airlines. Why? Because they have been the most successful at taking market share. And why release the report when they did – on 9/11? Because that’s the day Americans think about security and the Middle East.

It’s all dressed up nicely enough.

“America’s commercial aviation network is a national strategic asset,” began the report. “This network is a backbone of our economy – an integral part of the U.S. transportation system that moves “people, food, water, medicines, fuel and other commodities vital to public health, safety, security and economic well-being of our Nation.”

Indeed it is. Commercial airplanes bear a number that marks them as a member of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which technically is part of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command. In a pinch, they would have to perform some people-moving functions.

But to argue ,as the Astro-turfers do, that if profits on these routes through Europe to the Middle East aren’t restored to maximum levels, the American carriers will die off, and we’ll be dependent on “those people” to move our troops is not remotely believable.

The military almost never uses them to move troops, and they would enjoy a massive PR boost if it did.

The big three aren’t folding their tents over profit levels from flying to Dubai. They are huge corporations with huge profits – assured by past government favoritism – and none of that will go away over this.

The Middle East airlines themselves are not any more dangerous to land in U.S. airports than the American airlines. Passengers go through the same checks on both ends regardless of airline.

Incredibly, later in the report, the AstroTurf group says “Gulf countries are now raising the subsidies with senior U.S. officials, potentially linking this issue with national security discussions. The issues should not be intertwined.”

Precisely. United, American and Delta should not be pretending their loss of market share is somehow a security concern. It’s an economic concern that they – not we – should address.