This particular nightmare takes me back to the mid-1990s, when British Airways unveiled its grand alliance with American Airlines. Bob Ayling of BA and Don Carty of American had a wonderful time dressing up in each other’s flags (that’s airline people for you).
Around the same time, the UK and US governments sat down to negotiate a new open skies treaty. Under the increasingly dated Bermuda II agreement, British carriers may fly to US airports, but are prevented from competing with US airlines on lucrative feeder routes. On this side, Heathrow, the world’s most sought-after airport, is restricted to just two US carriers: American and United. The rest have to slum it at Gatwick or Stansted.
In return for opening Heathrow to new US entrants, the UK wants greater access to American passengers. Yet several years later, the two sides appear as entrenched as ever. Ayling and Carty have long since departed, yet ‘open skies’ remain locked in talks about talks.
Not everyone is complaining. Sir Richard Branson, for one, is privately only too happy that Heathrow is closed to newcomers. With a handful of lucrative transatlantic slots at Heathrow, set to increase dramatically if Virgin merges with BMI British Midland, Virgin has much to lose from greater access. Yet the potential of opening America to UK carriers is vast.
Until now, talks about UK-US open skies have been led by officials in Washington and London. Negotiations look set to shift from London to Brussels.
That should snarl things up in red tape for many more years to come.
- Jon Ashworth, business features editor at The Times.
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