Just when we thought the U.S. airlines had grown up and would stop acting like children, they disappoint us by running to Uncle Sam and seeking protection from big bad foreign airlines that are going to beat them up. Yes, friends, the P-word is back in the news.


We refer to protectionism, and the evident desire of U.S. airlines to have some.

The airlines, of course, will deny that they desire anything of the sort. They prefer the term "level playing field."

According to what we've been reading, the U.S. airlines are pushing the notion that the U.S. policy of open skies has tilted the field in favor of the rich Gulf states and their government-owned airlines like Emirates and Etihad, which are gobbling up routes around the globe in some sort of open-skies feeding frenzy.

What the U.S. airlines seem to want from the Obama administration is a retrenchment from open skies and some limits on the operations of certain foreign airlines.

Supporters of open skies are rushing to the barricades to preserve free trade. The Business Travel Coalition has taken up the cause on behalf of consumers, forming an organization called OpenSkies.Travel. The U.S. Travel Association has signed on.

If you're a lawyer, lobbyist, public relations consultant, speechwriter, talking head or editorial writer (oops), this is a gold mine.

But if you know your airline history, you've heard it all before.

Remember Pan Am? For the last two decade or so of its existence it was known as "financially troubled Pan Am," and it waged an on-again/off-again war against government-owned or subsidized airlines in Europe, thinking that they were contributors to its troubles.

Pan Am often singled out tiny Dutch airline KLM for hauling passengers between the U.S. and third countries by connecting them in Amsterdam (this was before U.S. airlines discovered the joys of hubbing).

Pan Am wanted Uncle Sam to tell KLM to stick to its knitting.

But the history of airline whining wasn't written entirely on this side of the pond. In 1992, France renounced its bilateral air agreement with the U.S. and demanded to negotiate a new deal, on the grounds that the U.S. airlines were "dumping" capacity in U.S.-Paris markets.

It seems that poor old Air France faced competition from no fewer than eight pistol-packing, passenger-rustling, fare-cutting carriers from the enormous USA. (Yes, believe it or not, eight!)

It's not even a transatlantic thing. Also in the previous century, the government of Australia once got its knickers in a knot when Qantas complained that U.S. airlines were carrying too much traffic between Australia and Japan. Northwest Airlines, according to Canberra, should stick to its knitting.

The level playing field, in short, has been the elusive goal of unhappy airline executives and their allies in government since the airlines discovered lawyers, lobbyists and P.R. consultants.

We see this as an opportunity for Congress and the Obama administration to validate their commitments to free trade.

Our advice to Washington is to listen politely to what the airlines have to say, sympathize with their plight, and then suggest that they come back at a future time when they haven't just earned the largest annual net profit in their whole unhappy history.

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