Anti Open Skies Campaign, What Happened to It?


Dedicated to Brussels Airport

Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump.

Got your attention?

For the past eight months a reality TV star, businessman, celebrity, whatever other word you want to use, has been leading the race for the presidential nomination of one of the two major parties in the United States. There is a lot to be alarmed and surprised about. But as I thought about this post, while watching another in an endless series of interviews, debates, town hall meetings with the candidates, I started thinking about…Open Skies. Seriously.

Trump has spoken a lot of words in this campaign. And a huge (his favorite word) percentage of them have been about international trade deals. About how the United States is getting ripped off by China, Japan, Mexico, you name it. Indeed, this is his major global organizing principle. It permeates everything he talks about. Why does he want Japan and South Korea and Saudi Arabia to have nuclear weapons (he has said this by the way, or at least said he’d be good with it)? Because they beat us at trade, have a bunch of our money, and can afford it, while we can’t afford to help them so much any more. Why does he want to re-negotiate NATO (yes, he’s said this too)? Same reason. In fact, just before I hit the send button on this piece he said that he was basically going to invoice NATO members he does not feel spend enough on defense. He believes the United States has been taken advantage of, we have been losing economically, that it is because we have had weak leaders, and he will change all of that. It is his organizing principle and he fits his views on any number of international issues into it.

Clinton and Sanders Don’t Like Trade Either

Donald Trump isn’t the only one. A candidate on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders (a self proclaimed Democratic Socialist, believe it or not) has talked almost as much about unfair deals, poorly implemented. He has even started to pull Hillary Clinton in his direction on some of those issues.

So, you would think, given the rhetoric of many U.S. airlines about the supposedly unfair deals between our country and Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (or to be more precise, the unfair way in which some U.S. airlines say those countries are implementing them), that Trump would be all over this; saying it is an example of American fecklessness. This issue seems to be teed up for Trump, and for Sanders as well.

Indeed, Trump often talks about the airports in Dubai and Doha and compares them unfavorably to those in the United States (something he has in common with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden). You might recall that U.S. airlines often like to point to the level of investment in those very airports as evidence of unfair trading practices.

So, how much do you think Trump talks about this? Well, the next time he talks about it will be the first time, to my knowledge. If the situation was even a fraction as bad as some U.S. airlines like to claim, he would be all over this. And remember, this is a guy who does not normally have much nice to say about Muslims and Muslim countries either. Again, this seems perfectly teed up for him. But…..silence.

Anti Open Skies Issue has No Political Traction in U.S.

Why is that? In retrospect, it is one of the most surprising things about this presidential campaign, and it has been a campaign long on surprises. Add to this that Trump once owned an airline and was part of the industry. It’s just kind of incredible to me.

Maybe the reason is this: there is so little to the argument some U.S. airlines are making that not even Donald Trump will join in!

At this point it is useful to recall some things I said in an earlier post about this.  I first wrote about this topic in April, 2015, Open Skies: What U.S. Airlines Really Want. I pointed out then that when the airlines were using this issue largely to position themselves to gain advantage in legislative and regulatory fights, their campaign made some sense.  And I think they may have gotten someplace.  But, as I wrote in July, 2015, Open Skies: An Update they started to take themselves way too seriously, started to believe their own propaganda, forgot the larger context in which U.S. relations with these countries exist (Iran, terrorism, ISIS, etc.) and they also made it personal.  Well, maybe that last one would not have scared away Donald Trump.  But they have so over-played their hand that they are not taken seriously any more, even by Donald Trump.

Sure, they maintain a twitter account and, I guess, a Facebook page (I’m not on Facebook). But the major aviation legislation for the year has been introduced in both houses of the U.S. Congress with nary a mention. No one seems to be paying attention. The airlines pushing this are getting nowhere fast. They can’t even get Donald Trump interested!

What I do sometimes hear these days is U.S. airlines using the subsidy issue; not as a way to get new routes, or lower government taxes, or a better regulatory outcome; but as a way of explaining to their customers why their own service is so much poorer than that offered by the Gulf carriers (or by other foreign carriers, for that matter). We don’t get billions in government aid, they say. So we can’t have nice lounges and spacious comfortable cabins, or high end food and beverage. Don’t get me wrong, U.S. airlines are actually making some strides in these areas, including in their airport lounges (though some of that is from competition by the likes of American Express which has opened Centurion lounges in several major airports. It is a terrific product, by the way). But their product remain inferior to that of many international carriers, especially in the Gulf and in Asia.

In retrospect, it is almost funny that so many were so concerned a year or so ago about how this debate might turn out. I suppose there may still be some life in the argument, and no one pushing it has done anything close to surrendering. But for those who worried that the United States was in danger of overturning the entire international aviation regime, and setting back a quarter century of aviation liberalization; well you don’t have to worry about that so much any more.