Free up flights across the pond

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Attention Americans who would like to travel to Europe and Europeans who would like to visit the US: Flight options could soon multiply. Fares may soon drop. But only if a tentative agreement to open up the transatlantic skies is cleared for takeoff.

The deal, initialed by US and European Union negotiators earlier this month, has met stiff resistance from British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, also British. These two airlines, along with American and United, are the only carriers allowed to fly between the US and London's Heathrow Airport, a lucrative route indeed. But under the agreement, they stand to lose their hold on Europe's busiest airport.

BA and Virgin are also howling about the unfairness of the agreement, known as "open skies," because it would still ban European carriers from operating domestically within the US, and also ban foreigners from owning a controlling interest in US airlines.

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The two British airlines brand these practices protectionist, and they're right, but those trade barriers have staunch defenders in Congress. Key US lawmakers have just raised objections to open skies, criticizing language about foreign control as vague. The ban must stay, they argue.

When transport ministers representing the EU's 27 member states meet Thursday to vote on open skies, they should keep passengers in mind and approve the deal. The US Congress should not block it, either.

Admittedly, the agreement is not perfect. But it's a vast improvement on the present setup.

Say you live in Texas. Ever wonder why you cannot fly directly to London, but must land way out at Gatwick instead? Or say you live in Ireland. Ever wonder why Aer Lingus can fly to only four US cities? The reason is a set of 16 restrictive bilateral deals between the US and European countries that go back decades. Under open skies, these would be pitched out, and US carriers would be able to fly to any city in the EU and vice versa.

If America and Europe have learned anything in the past 30 years, it's that airline deregulation on each side of the pond has resulted in more consumer choice – more destinations and convenience, cheaper fares, and better service.

Not only will open skies be good for passengers, it will power up economic growth. The EU estimates that it will significantly increase transatlantic traffic, generating $16 billion in economic benefits over the next five years. A total of about 80,000 jobs will be created. Britain, which saw American tourism drop by almost 10 percent from 2000 to 2005, should keep this in mind. All of the other EU countries are convinced of the benefits and are backing the deal.

As for the issue of foreign ownership: Both Republicans and Democrats who want to keep America's carriers in American hands are needlessly presenting it as a matter of security. Sadly, it's like the foreign ownership of ports debate all over again. US politicians are also being overly influenced by unions. America's struggling airlines could use the foreign capital, and these jobs would probably stay in the US.

But agreement on that debate can be saved for later. Before open skies is scuttled yet again (it's happened twice before), it should be approved – for the sake of passengers.

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