Impasse in the Air

April 05, 1994

Airline landing rights talks between ostensible allies, the U.S. and Britain, are getting hard to distinguish from the kind of Cold War rhetoric that marked the early years of the United Nations. Trouble is, an outsider can't determine who's playing the stone-faced Andrei Gromyko, snarling "Nyet!" to everything.

Why has a relatively straightforward commercial treaty negotiation proved so prickly for two nations that speak the same language, ideologically as well as linguistically? For more than a year the U.S. and Britain have been trying to negotiate changes in their agreements controlling trans-Atlantic air flights. In fact, there have been no meaningful talks for about six months. Each side is making retaliatory noises and accusing the other of not really wanting to negotiate.

All this is especially baffling after reading a report by a British parliamentary committee published last month. It is by far the most sensible discussion of the issues we have read. The report is not a knee-jerk defense of the British position. It contrasts with the diatribes being issued from both sides of the Atlantic. And it points to some common-sense steps that could break the impasse.

After months of study, the committee finds both sides inflexible, failing to consider the other's political problems and focusing on the toughest issues while neglecting easily resolved disputes.

"In truth," the committee concludes, "neither side's position is particularly constructive, nor, it seems to us, sensible." Each side claims to want relaxed restrictions on air travel but behaves the opposite. The heavy hands of major airlines -- particularly British Airways and American Airlines -- complicate negotiations that are nominally between the two governments.

Some of the committee's comments parallel a major policy speech by U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena last November. The similarities reinforce the belief that an agreement could be reached with good will and realism on both sides. For example, both agree that the existing agreement is badly outdated and speak favorably of easing cargo restrictions as a useful first step. Both put the interests of consumers ahead of the airlines. Both agree substantive compromise is critical.

Instead of each waiting for the other side to blink, either the U.S. or Britain should make a substantial offer on some important issues and publicly ask the other to match it. Then the rest of us can judge who's the obdurate Gromyko.

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