by Roger Dow | May 22, 2015

The travel industry has reaped considerable rewards in recent years by uniting behind public policies that benefit all our stakeholders. From passage of the Travel Promotion Act and creation of Brand USA to visa reforms and the establishment of a National Travel and Tourism Strategy, our ability to speak with one voice has elevated our industry in Washington and established travel as one of the prime drivers of America's economy.   

This record of success makes it all the more difficult to understand the current split over the issue of America's Open Skies agreements. The three U.S. legacy airlines (American, Delta and United) have decided to break from long-standing travel industry consensus by asking the federal government to intervene in a way that would void our Open Skies agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar.  

Open Skies agreements negotiated between the U.S. and our travel partners around the world provide free-market access in international aviation. This eliminates cumbersome government control of routes, flight frequency and pricing that once stunted the international travel market. 

We would like to take the U.S. legacy carriers at their word that they seek only to "preserve" Open Skies agreements. But their actions tell a different tale, and loudly at that: every step they have recently taken on this issue has been an attack on healthy international competition, and a lurch toward interventionist, protectionist policies that would ultimately do grave harm to our industry and travel consumers.

Open Skies agreements promote competition and increase capacity, which drives down airfares and helps travelers. Ticket prices on Open Skies routes are 32 percent cheaper than on regulated routes, generating billions in savings for passengers.  

Open Skies agreements have also opened more U.S. cities to the critical international travel market. Before Open Skies, cities like Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas, Memphis, Minneapolis, Portland and Salt Lake City had limited or non-existent connections to international destinations. That has changed dramatically under Open Skies.    

Emirates, for example, will soon offer the first direct flight from Dubai to Orlando. This route gives one of our nation's leading travel destinations a direct pipeline to the Middle East, South Asia, the Far East and Africa-home to many of the most rapidly growing (and most lucrative) sources of international travel to the U.S.    

Open Skies agreements are the bedrock of a competitive international travel market, which everyone in the industry understands is critical to our future and to the nation's economy.    

Washington clearly recognizes the importance of attracting international travelers, which is why the Obama Administration established a goal of drawing 100 million overseas visitors annually by 2021. With the help of U.S. Open Skies policy, we are well on our way, welcoming 75 million international travelers to the U.S, who spent $180 billion and directly supported over one million U.S. jobs last year.  

The U.S. legacy carriers have thrived under Open Skies. The agreements gave them access to the European Union and South and Central America. Government subsidies-among them, billions in direct payments after 9/11, lenient bankruptcy laws that allowed them to write off billions of debt, and still more billions in pension bailouts-have enabled U.S. airlines to grow into global corporate powerhouses.  

With this government support and falling oil prices, the legacy carriers are now reporting record profits. Yet despite this windfall, few benefits are trickling down to travelers themselves. Indeed, the overall air travel experience continues to decline, characterized by high ticket prices, heavy ancillary fees and cramped planes.  

Without the competition of Open Skies, airlines will have no incentive to reduce prices, add routes or improve customer service.

U.S. Travel sees the threat to Opens Skies as a threat to our industry's future. We regret the three U.S. legacy carriers have decided to go it alone on such a vital issue to the travel industry as a whole. But we have a responsibility to speak for millions of U.S. travelers and the tens of thousands of American businesses supported by international travel.

Roger Dow is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, the Washington, D.C.-based national umbrella organization representing all segments of travel in America-an industry responsible for generating $2.1 trillion in annual economic output.
U.S. Travel's mission is to increase travel to and within the United States. The association advocates for improved travel facilitation and visa reform, provides authoritative travel research and analysis.

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