About a year ago, more or less, it began to
seem like the transatlantic airline market was on the threshold of
a new era. And with cautious optimism, we said so in this space.
stemmed from an unusual confluence of three events in the fall of
2005. First, aviation negotiators for the U.S. and the European
Union laid out the framework for a comprehensive airline service
agreement that would give the airlines of each side expanded rights
to cross the pond and to enter local markets on the other
Second, the Dept.
of Transportation, hoping to seal that deal and move beyond the
"framework" stage, sought to create a more favorable atmosphere for
foreign investment in U.S. airlines by bending the rule on what it
meant to "control" a U.S. carrier. It was an awkward and inelegant
proposal, but it at least marked an attempt to move the U.S. off
America, against this historic backdrop, formally filed its
application at the DOT for U.S. airline rights, giving the U.S. the
opportunity to signal to the world that it was ready to embrace
change and free trade, even if it didn't see eye-to-eye with the
home government of Richard Branson, progenitor of the Virgin
Since then, the
U.S.-E.U. "agreement" has languished, the DOT proposal to tweak the
definition of control has crawled away and died and the application
of Virgin America is in legal limbo, buried in a
DOT docket under reams of red tape and carping legal memos from
labor unions and competing airlines, pointing out every "i" that
hasn't been dotted, every "t" that hasn't been crossed.
In short, a year
has passed and the U.S. is not much closer to bringing its aviation
policies into the 21st century than it was when this century began.
And the immediate prognosis for change isn't good.
If we were to make
a list of the biggest disappointments of 2006, this unfinished
business would be on it.
Speaking of disappointments, we're a little
underwhelmed with some of the recommendations that have come down
from the DOT's inspector general regarding airline
As reported in our
news pages today, the IG, as he is known inside the Beltway, wants
the DOT to consider imposing a variety of new requirements on
airlines to bring about improved customer service.
It was the goal of
the Airline Deregulation Act, way back in 1978, to place "maximum
reliance" on competitive market forces, rather than government
regulations, to shape the U.S. airline industry. That's the mandate
for routes, and it's the mandate for fares. It ought to be the
mandate for customer service, too.
We're 100% behind
the idea of regulating safety and hammering airline companies
(indeed, any companies) that are guilty of fraud or
But after nearly 30
years of deregulation, we suspect there are still too many people
in Washington who place too much faith in the federal government's
ability to devise and enforce industry-specific rules that tell
airlines how to communicate with or treat their
In the early days
of deregulation, the airlines had to relearn pricing and route
planning the hard way because they didn't have those skills when
the government told them where to fly and how much to
There could be a
lesson there for customer service.