The travel industry had good reason to welcome the Obama administration as we did nine months ago. The new administration promised to boost the image of the U.S. abroad, improving the environment in which the global travel business must operate.
But there was one caveat, which we voiced in these pages: that Democratic politicians, emboldened by majorities in both houses of Congress, might allow their protectionist instincts to get in the way of good government and free trade.
Obama's Transportation Department was giving us a particularly nasty example of this last week when the situation was salvaged by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
As we report in our news pages today, the DOT abruptly served notice on Air Canada a month ago that it should immediately cancel a host of long-term charters for National Hockey League teams because of the risk that these multistop flights might inadvertently transport people between two U.S. points, which would be illegal.
This edict swept away 50 years of practice, under which the U.S. government has allowed foreign airlines to operate multistop charters within the U.S. for entities such as touring sports teams and performing ensembles.
Ordinarily, a foreign carrier cannot offer transportation between, say, New York and Chicago, but it can take a hockey team from Toronto to New York, to Chicago, to Detroit and then on to Montreal. U.S. carriers have reciprocal rights in Canada.
As Air Canada recounts it, the Air Line Pilots Association and some U.S. airlines began to get antsy about these flights some time ago when Air Canada picked up U.S. hockey teams as clients. In what was widely seen as a politically motivated move, the Obama DOT simply lowered the boom on Air Canada without warning, threatening to disrupt the opening of the NHL season.
That sent Air Canada to court seeking an injunction.
But hockey is a very big deal in Canada and, as it happened, Harper brought up the topic during a previously scheduled meeting with President Obama.
At a White House briefing, Harper said the two sides were working out a resolution and described the charter flap as one of the occasional "irritants that arise in our trade relationship."
Then he hit the high note: "It is critical at a time where we're trying to see a recovery in the global economy, where forces of protectionism are a very significant threat, that we continue to demonstrate to the world that Canada and the United States can manage trade relations in a way that's extremely positive and a model for other countries."
This is particularly true for aviation, because the DOT's misguided slap at Air Canada threatened to put the world on notice that the U.S. commitment to opening up international aviation markets is only as strong as its ability to stand up to interest groups like ALPA.
The U.S. takes credit for bringing Open Skies agreements to numerous international airline markets and for fostering cross-border alliances that allow U.S. and foreign airlines to extend their networks.
If the U.S. is going to make any further progress in opening new markets and breaking down barriers to global aviation growth, it has to begin with its closest neighbor and largest trading partner, Canada.
And it shouldn't have to be reminded that it can't be conducting witch-hunts on behalf of U.S. labor groups.