The Senate Commerce Committee yesterday approved a measure designed to assure that the pro-competitive international aviation policy of the current administration is future national policy, no matter who occupies the White House.
The bill, reported by unanimous vote, would set out pro-competitive goals for U.S. negotiators of bilateral air services agreements, as well as set out a clear pro-competitive policy statement to guide the Civil Aeronautics Board in deciding international route and rate matters.
The bill makes several changes in the "fly America" law that currently requires government-paid trips abroad to be taken on U.S. flag airlines. The law has been attacked repeatedly by foreign governments and airlines as a symbol of inconsistency in U.S. policy calling for open competition in international aviation.
Although the committee declined to repeal the entire act, as urged by the State Department, it modified the law in two ways.
First, to eliminate the administrative problems created by forcing government employes traveling abroad to fly U.S. carriers -- even if it means waiting around for a couple of days for an American flight with all the added time and expense that entails -- the bill would require government employes to use U.S. carriers in travel between two foreign points only when that service is "reasonably available."
Second, the measure gives U.S. negotiators the flexibility to use the "fly America" law in negotiations with foreign governments for air service agreements. If a government signs a liberal, competitive bilaterial agreement that meets U.S. international aviation policy goals, the U.S. would allow government-paid travel to the U.S. and between foreign points to take place on the foreign nation's airlines.
Other significant provisions of the bill would:
Establish a fare zone within which airlines could adjust foreign fares without government interference, just as the Airline Deregulation Act granted such a zone for domestic fares. Airlines would be allowed to raise foreign fares by 5 percent above a base line or lower them by 50 percent without CAB approval.
Allow foreign airlines to carry passengers between U.S. cities in emergency situations when the public is being seriously inconvenienced. The CAB would have to make sure no U.S. airlines were available before turning to foreign airlines in these situations.
During the markup session yesterday, Commerce Chairman Howard W. Cannon (D-Nev.), who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum (R-Kans.), said he hoped a measure institutionalizing a progressive policy would avoid the repeat of a controversial 1977 air agreement with the United Kingdom, the so-called "Bermuda II" pact. He called that agreement "the greatest step backward in 40 years."
He complimented the Carter administration for "getting its act together" since then and attaining competitive aviation bilaterals with all the U.S. agencies working in concert for the same goals. But he worried about the future without a statutory change. "This recent success is an exception to a long history of bickering agencies, confused policy, and inconsistent bilateral goals," he complained.