While the government tries to straighten out the mess on Wall Street, we pause to reflect on another event unfolding in Washington that might have a big effect on the way we do business in coming years.

We refer to the ongoing dialogue about open skies. Although it often seems to be nothing more than a slogan, like "free trade," it is a matter of considerable substance.

This year, after many years of fits and starts, governments on both sides of the pond managed to bring about an open skies regime, under which all U.S. airlines can land at any point in Europe and all E.U. airlines can serve the U.S. from any country in Europe.

Having broken down the barriers that limited transatlantic routings, the governments are now focused on breaking down the nationality barriers that restrict investment, cross-ownership and globalization.

Once these barriers come down in transatlantic markets, they can come down elsewhere.

Given that the U.S. is in an election year and facing a change in leadership, these talks are not expected to bear fruit until next year at the earliest.

It is our hope that, no matter who is inaugurated in January, the new administration will take the initiative in these talks.

To date, most of the pressure for reform seems to have come from the other side of the Atlantic. Although government officials in the E.U. and its member nations have many of the same protectionist instincts as governments everywhere, they have managed to make the U.S. look like the impediment to open markets.

That should change. If international aviation is to become a truly global enterprise, the U.S. ought to be shaping the debate and leading the way, not following.

Brewers, automakers, software developers, hoteliers and numerous others can set up shop in foreign markets all over the world, but American Airlines cannot operate from Frankfurt to Rome, and Ryanair cannot fly between New York and Toronto.

These routes should be decided by consumers, not by governments.

Revealing research

ASTA is to be commended for a nifty piece of research regarding consumer attitudes toward travel agents and the fees they charge.

As we report in our news pages today, an ASTA-sponsored survey of consumers revealed that younger travelers (in the 18-34 age group) showed much less resistance to the idea of service fees than older travelers.

This finding likely reflects the fact that younger travelers aren't burdened with memories of the traditional business model, whereby agents worked primarily on commission and assessed few, if any, fees on their clients.

It might also mean that consumers are finally getting the message that paying an agent for service and expertise is a sensible way to buy travel.

Whatever the reason, the consequence of this news for retailers is to stand some conventional (and depressing) wisdom on its head. It has long been thought that the next generation of travelers would flock to the Internet, leaving an aging population of brick-and-mortar agents to waste away, waiting for their phones to ring. 

Those who have believed that scenario to be simplistic and unrealistic now have a little science on their side.

And they have ASTA to thank for that. 

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