new era in transatlantic airline service could be on the horizon, now that Europe's transport ministers have given the European Commission a mandate to negotiate air service agreements with the U.S. and other nations.

In Europe, this is being talked about as a very big deal because it could fundamentally alter the structure of the industry. In fact, that seems to be the whole idea.

The world today is served by a mosaic of European airlines, flying the flags and reflecting the cultures of the U.K., Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, etc. It's quaint and probably not terribly efficient. And it is the goal of the EC, the administrative arm of the European Union, to change it.

Airlines have these strong national identities because for over five decades international trade in aviation

developed and matured under a regime of bilateral agreements, country to country. The typical deal between Country A and Country B allowed for service by each other's airlines, but rarely offered A-to-B opportunities for the airlines of Country C.

The architects of a united Europe in Brussels -- as well as some deep thinkers on this side of the pond -- want to give this bilateral approach the heave-ho.

What the European Commission wants is not 15 agreements between the U.S. and 15 European nations, but one agreement between the U.S. and the EU. The EC sees many benefits.

For one thing, it would serve the EU's goal of giving all companies in the community equal opportunities to compete. It ill serves the spirit of the common market -- and violates community law -- for an airline in one EU country to be given greater access to the U.S. market than an airline in some other EU country.

And by breaking down these national distinctions, the EC claims it would facilitate "more cross-border investment activity, airline mergers and the expansion of successful carriers outside their home Member State."

In Europe, the airlines of the future won't be named after countries.

We're sure that a graduate student somewhere in Cambridge or New Haven is busily putting a dollar value on the benefits this regime could bring to U.S.

and European airlines and their wholesale and retail customers in the form of better service and more competition, lower fares, stronger alliances, etc.

Less likely is that somebody will put a dollar value -or a price -- on homogenization.

Americans love Europe. But we love it because it's Ireland and Italy, Greece and Spain, Finland and France and all those people, places, and things (and breads and beers and chocolates and wines) in between.

Of course, we wouldn't presume to allow our silly nostalgia for the quaint and inefficient to stand in the way of European unification or economic progress. We survived airline deregulation in the U.S., we embraced the Euro -- and we'll manage to live with this.

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