Posts Tagged ‘Aviation Politics’
Why AA/BA Antitrust Immunity Makes More Sense now than ever…
When American Airlines (AA) and British Airways (BA) filed for antitrust immunity in 2002 there was little hope that an agreement could be reached with the US and EU Regulatory authorities. New entrants into the EU-US market were prohibited, and AA and BA were opposing businesses nearing an effective monopoly hold on daily departures between Heathrow and the US.
In 2007, the first phase of the new EU-US Open Skies accord was reached. Since then several new entrants have started flights in this lucrative market. This agreement has allowed these new market entrants to fundamentally change the competitive landscape at Heathrow and other airports throughout the EU. Ultimately the passengers now have a wider choice of carriers, service levels, and new non-stop destinations than ever before. As a result, consumers on both sides of the Atlantic should urge their lawmakers to approve the AA/BA application for immunity.
The Opposition from Virgin
In spite of these competitive changes some consumer groups, and competitors such as Virgin Atlantic (VS), vehemently oppose the proposal. Virgin Atlantic claim that if the deal were to be approved that AA/BA would have a “stranglehold on London Heathrow-US services, and be able to coordinate schedules enough to inflate demand, and as a result also inflate fares. While the anti-trust immunity would arguably have some impact on frequency and schedule as the two carriers coordinate, in the end consumer demand and pressure from new competitors will keep fares in check and provide passengers an alternative choice of carriers on a scale not previously available.
Since the implementation of the Open Skies agreement, we have seen many carriers such as Air France, Delta, and US Airways, and Northwest begin to challenge the established carriers in the Heathrow-US market. While the economic downturn has temporarily scaled down the expansion efforts of some like Air France, these are an example of the healthy competition that comes from open markets. Since then Congressman Orbester has made his protectionist position clear via US HR 831, while UK Transport Minister Hoon Geoff Hoon stopped short of threats to dissolve the current EU-US open skies agreement as he reinforced European calls for further liberalisation in stage two talks during a speech to the International Aviation Club in Washington two weeks ago.
Hoon indicated that if no second-stage agreement is reached next year, either party has the right to withdraw traffic rights secured under phase one – an option highlighted by previous UK transport officials but not by Hoon. It was the stance of his predecessor Ruth Kelley the former Transport Minister.
During the meeting of aviation professionals Hoon said that “[we] should stay clear of retaliation,”. “I have no doubt the United States should not be afraid of opening up its aviation business to further competition.”
In our opinion it is entirely likely that with the European and Local elections in June, and current turmoil over UK domestic policy issues such as MP’s expenses, and the recent defeat in the House on the issue of Gurkha’s, it is possible that this Labour Government, and its ministers, will not be present around the final negotiating table.
In his speech Hoon indicated that protectionism offers cold comfort in an economic downturn. That same day United States Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN) was receiving an award for “service to aviation’ while at the same time being the main architect of H.R. 831 calling for limited the power of the DoJ and calling for tougher reviews, restrictions, and rollbacks on airline alliances and
What is the rest of the world doing?
In a related story, Canada raised it’s foreign-ownership limits this week to just short of 50%, while Inida continues to liberlise it’s foreign ownership criteria.
Another concern for the UK, and EU, is the US reaction to including commercial flights in the EU carbon emissions scheme, which we at TWC have lobbied against.
The New Threat at Heathrow
There is also a serious potential contender in the London-US market. BMI (BD) and their majority owner Lufthansa have been raising their profile to business travelers over the past few months As Heathrow’s second largest airline could direct links to US be far off? Lufthansa’s recent increase in its BMI stake is further evidence of the emerging strength and competition in the Heathrow market by the Star Alliance, who already operate with antitrust immunity.
The past few years have also seen some important experimentation with trans-Atlantic links between other London airports, such as Stansted and Luton, with mixed results. Fairly radical change came at Gatwick as a near mass exodus of carriers shifted their Gatwick operations to Heathrow soon after the final agreement on Open Skies was in place. Virgin Atlantic also has a unique opportunity to redefine the overall London-US airport experience as it leads a consortium proposing the purchase of Gatwick Airport from the British Aviation Authority (BAA). If it succeeds in its bid, they will have the opportunity to potentially shift consumer preference away from Heathrow with a superior airport experience.
We agree that consolidation is no silver bullet, and it will not solve any carriers problems overnight. That said, we feel that there is no cogent argument for opposing the AA/BA request for the same immunity that has been granted many other alliances in the EU and US already. We believe that its approval will level the playing field between the airline alliances, increase competitive pressures, and ultimately benefit consumers as a result.
The Resolution in brief
Citing the erosion of airline competition on international routes, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James L. Oberstar of the 8th District of Minnesota has introduced a bill to study the effects airline alliances and anti-trust immunity have on consumer choice.
The bill, H.R. 831, was introduced late Tuesday session of the US Transportation Aviation Subcommittee, and was formally released today.
While the Resolution does appear to outwardly address issues around consumer protection, our analysis of the text shows a more disturbing trend toward questioning the role of the Secretary of Transportation and the Department of Justice in the review, approval, and interpretation of U.S. existing anti-trust law in a single industrial area.
Why the Resolution is not required
While we agree that the legislative and judicial branches should have a common set of laws to work from, the fact of the matter is that they already do. These laws have kept in balance the needs of consumers and the airlines and other industries, with a few notable exceptions. One of the most notable exceptions was the failure in 2002 of the American Airline (AA) and British Airways (BA) antitrust immunity. At the time, this decision was based on restrictions at London’s Heathrow Airport which have since been lifted and trans-Atlantic competition at Heathrow has flourished even in a weakening market.
The other potentially damaging issue with this new Resolution is its impact on the US-EU Open Skies agreement that paved the way to opening up London Heathrow, as well as other key trans-Atlantic markets. We would call on both the Chairman and the Committee to explain the potential impact of this resolution on the Open Skies agreement.
This resolution could hurt airline consumers and constituents alike
While we applaud the House Resolutions wish to protect consumers, we see it as simply a misguided attempt to redefine the power and scope of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and also needlessly attempt to block needed industry consolidation.
After fully examining Chairman Oberstar’s voting record and public comments, it has become clear to us that he feels that his constituents and the U.S. worker on whole needs protection from globalisation. This is not unlike the same issues that Prime Minister Gordon Brown faces here in the U.K. with regard to the recent wildcat strikes protesting the use of “overseas’ labour- even when that labour is simply part of the EU’s “Freedom of Movement” guarantee that we are all able to avail ourselves of.
What should we be focused on?
At TWC we feel that the US and EU government’s top priority should be an open trans-Atlantic aviation area that would allow the reciprocal removal of limits on the ownership of airlines by EU and U.S. investors and also give European carriers rights to fly passengers and cargo between U.S. destinations, known as the right of cabotage. We also feel that the US and EU must work out formal agreements on these key issues before extending the agreements to other third-party nations.
We should also keep in mind that consolidation is essentially better than a single airlines failure, and all of the local and national economic consequences of such a failure. Surely, it is in all of our interest to allow airlines to consolidate in a manner that allows them to remain strong, viable, and competitive employers.