European Airline Deregulation

The Great Missed Opportunity?

By
Last Light
European Airline Deregulation : The Great Missed Opportunity? - Richard Pinkham

Introduction

After decades of country-sponsored protectionism, Europe's passenger air services sector has entered an era of liberalization. Motivated by a desire to promote a less regulated economic environment and lower air travel prices, the European Union introduced in 1987 legislation aimed at dismantling government regulation of the Community's airline industry. By April 1997, the deregulation process was largely complete.

On paper, the initiative has achieved its desired end-product: companies and not governments now decide which cities receive what level of air service and at what price. The new regime has also heightened competition between airlines and catalyzed more air service throughout the Community. While gratifying, these celebrated results leave unanswered numerous important questions as to the efficacy of Brussels' initiative: how successful has the intervention been in promoting enhanced competition in the sector, catalyzing more service provisions, and, most importantly, lowering the prices faced by European passengers?

The overall results, particularly with regard to price levels, are disappointing, with market-distorting state subsidies to individual airlines, discriminatory conditions at European airports, and the use of predatory tactics against fledgling airlines by incumbent carriers all undermining progress towards enhanced competition. Until Brussels pushes to remove these competition-stunting factors from the sector, much of the liberalization program's potential will be left unrealized.

Background

From its inception, the commercial transport of people and goods by air has been subject to government oversight. This regulation was aimed originally at ensuring that people in the air (and on the ground) were safely protected against negligence by the fledgling companies. In later years, when safe operation of commercial air transport became more assured, government turned its attention to regulating financial aspects of the industry. Later still, government extended its mandate beyond domestic operations, asserting itself by deciding such as matters as where and how air carriers would be able to serve international markets. The international component of airline regulation -particularly salient in the European sector - was essentially born at the 1944 Chicago Convention. Fearing that their national carriers would be unable to compete with the well ­established American airlines in a liberal environment, the European conference delegates voted to institute a system which required bilateral authorization for access to international markets, as well as fare and capacity levels. The end result of this decision, which dashed the United States' desire to promote global "open skies" (insofar as international service was concerned), has been an enduring legacy of stunted competition.

Airline Regulation in Europe: The Rationale

As elsewhere, the regulation of transport was conducted in European countries with public protection in mind, but also somewhat uniquely with the goal of ensuring that transport was used as a tool for national development.. Civil aviation in particular was considered as a quasi-public utility whose considerable external benefits merited protective regulation.1

Continental countries also have had another vital motivation behind their regulation of air carriers - ownership. In Europe, the public service nature of the airline industry motivated most countries to make the institution and maintenance of a scheduled-service airline a national project (to be fully funded by the treasury). The resultant airline would operate both domestic service and be the designated foreign carrier.2 As a result, most European airlines were state-owned; several, notably Air France, Alitalia, and Greece's Olympic Airways continue to operate under majority government ownership. As is to be expected, these "flag carriers" have been operated and regulated differently than private providers of air transport.

Origin of Deregulation

The move towards liberalization of the airline industry gained its first major victory in 1978 when the U.S. Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act after observing that protection and promotion of US carriers was actually harming the consumers it aimed to protect - as prices charged were increasingly incompatible with justifiable costs. The Act immediately generated benefits for American consumers and, less predictably, the domestic airline industry.

With the introduction of bona fide competition onto routes that had previously offered consumers one or perhaps two options, fares plummeted, falling 21 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 1978 (when deregulation went into effect) and 1988. Elicited by this drop in fares was a tremendous surge in traffic, as passenger boardings climbed from 245 million to 455 million. For the airlines' part, the end of regulation also signaled the end of their obligation to operate efficiency stifling point-to-point networks, which carriers replaced with the eminently more efficient hub-and-spoke route networks. In addition to saving millions of gallons of jet fuel during the petroleum crisis, the use of hubs is largely responsible for increasing the industry load factor3 from 55 percent to 62 percent.4 However, not all the changes brought about by deregulation were positive.

Numerous loopholes were created, in large part because the "head-first" jump into the deregulation process by the US government meant that safeguards against possible abuses by the airlines were not put in place. The result is a situation which has allowed the carriers to operate in a manner not wholly consistent with the intended spirit of open competition. Indeed, the ability of the American carriers to gain substantial market power through the manipulation of such mechanisms as mergers,5 frequent flyer programs,6 airline-owned computer reservations systems (CRS)7 and fortress hubs8 has been nothing short of remarkable. A 1993 study showed that, while deregulation of the US airline industry had generated consumer gains (due primarily to fare decreases and increased flight frequency) of over $6 billion annually (measured in 1977 dollars), a further $2.5 billion of consumer surplus should have been created, but was captured by the airlines through their exploitation of the imperfectly competitive industry.9

The European Response: Bilateral Initiatives

These shortcomings, as well as the incredible financial instability that saw numerous American airlines-both established in and new to the sector-overextend themselves into bankruptcy, seemed to confirm long-held European beliefs that regulation was necessary. However, one country-the United Kingdom- saw it differently. Focusing on the gains achieved, and dismayed by poor performance at home and by other European airlines, a House of Lords Select Committee on the future European Community noted in a 1980 report that "the interests of the [European] consumer appear to be sacrificed to the prestige of flag carrying national airlines and the protected environment in which they operate."10

In response, the Thatcher government began reforming Britain's share of European commercial aviation, both internally and within the Community. These ends were achieved by the complete privatization of British Airways in 1987, and by the loosening of bilateral air agreements with several key countries.11

The British noted that the bilateral agreements, which traditionally restricted air service between two countries to a single carrier from each on any given route, served to keep competition at an absolute minimum. Indeed, in 1987, of the 988 routes existing within the European Community, only 136 were served by more than two carriers, 12 and carriers were allowed to keep capacity below market level (thereby elevating prices faced by travelers). A case in point is provided by the since-voided agreement between Britain and France and its effect on the London-Paris market.

The busiest air route in Europe in 1983 with 2.1 million passengers, the London­Paris market was essentially operated as a duopoly with absolute collusion. Given the high demand, both airlines operated several frequencies with large aircraft, an action that would normally lower prices as the seat-cost for a flight is reduced substantially with large aircraft utilization. Indeed, the lower costs, high yields (which accrue from the fact that the route is heavily traveled by businesspeople and is only 215 statute miles), and relatively high load factors of the route should have resulted in a fare 10-20 percent lower than the European average. However, the lack of competition meant that Air France and British Airways enjoyed the ability to charge passengers one of the highest fares (on a fare/ kilometer basis) in Europe.13

To change this situation, UK policy makers prevailed upon officials from the Netherlands and then Ireland to liberalize their respective aviation accords with Britain so as to eliminate government interference in: the number of carriers allowed to serve the markets; the amount of capacity supplied to the markets; and the level of fares offered. While the effects of the UK's agreement with the Netherlands were impressive, it was the results of the 1986 treaty with Ireland (the UK-Ireland market is much larger than that between Britain and the Netherlands) that truly highlighted the possibilities of airline liberalization in Europe.

Whereas in the five years before the accord fares between England and Ireland rose 72.6 percent, unrestricted round trip fares fell from an average of Irish £208 to as low as I£70 in the four years after the treaty was activated. By 1989, flights between Dublin and London reached 89 a week, up from 32 in 1986, and the traffic between the two countries rose from 1.85 million passengers in 1985 to 4.2 million in 1989.14 That the operations side of business continued as usual under these conditions scored a major victory for deregulation proponents. As Button and Swann write, the experiment "served to demonstrate that excessive instability need not arise under freer market conditions."15

Reform on a Community-Wide Basis

Duly impressed by the gains illustrated by the American and especially the British liberalization initiatives, the European Community inserted itself into the process to become a force for change in the sectorin the early 1980s. 16 Using the 1957 Treaty of Rome as its foundation, the increasingly self-assured EC began tearing down the protective measures constructed and maintained by the Continent's national transport entities.

Specifically, the EC began to ensure that Article 86 of the Treaty (stipulating that firms may not enjoy "abuses of dominant position"17) was enforced with regard to the Community's airline sector. This process began in 1987 when the Commission implemented Council Decision 87/602/EEC, essentially mandating that any licensed European carrier could fly on a scheduled service basis into any European market.18 This decision opened the door to an unlimited number of new carriers to offer services in competition with the Continent's incumbent airlines. As a direct result of this legislation, by 1993 there were 80 new airlines - many low cost - operating from EU countries.

Taking its liberalization program a step further in 1990, the Community instituted two new regulations governing competition in the airline sector. With Regulation (EEC) 2342/90, the EU took the power to establish prices away from the countries whose cities represented the relevant market, instituting a double-disapproval pricing structure. Under this regime, a carrier could only be prohibited from offering fares in excess of a reference fare by five percent if both member states disapproved it.

Subsequent legislation prevented governments from ruling on fares altogether. Furthermore, EU airlines may now offer any fare unless it is determined to be so high as to represent an unfair price to demand of consumers or so low as to represent a possible market violation (e.g., predatory pricing). The new regulations state that offered fares must be "reasonably related to the long-term fully allocated relevant costs of the applicant air carrier."19

Also instituted in 1990, Regulation (EEC) Number 2343/90 mandated that capacity restrictions on intra-Community flights be lifted. This important piece of legislation essentially states that any European airline may fly as many seats into any foreign European market as it deems sensible.20

The last major piece of legislation to come out of Brussels, 1992's Council Regulation (EEC) Number 2408/92, stated that by April 1, 1997 any European carrier could offer service on any intra-European route.21 This regulation- now in effect-most signally means that cabotage,22 once unthinkable, is now a possibility. For example, British Airways may now fly passengers from Paris to Lyon, or Iberia might operate frequencies in the profitable Rome-Milan market. Current important initiatives of the EU body charged with overseeing competition in the Union (Directorate General (DG) IV) include actions aimed at enforcing Treaty of Rome Articles 92-94, which forbid government subsidies that either distort or threaten to distort competition.23

Effects of the New Environment

The most immediate and salient effect of Brussels' liberalizing decrees has been the formation of numerous new air carriers. Ireland's Ryanair, for example, has taken aim on some of the routes on which bloated Aer Lingus formerly enjoyed a natural monopoly and in the process has become Europe's most successful airline in its class.24 Ryanair's success, operating efficiently out of Ireland, has prompted the carrier to establish a second hub in London. Similarly, Belgium has seen the advent of two new airlines since deregulation began in earnest. Challenging Sabena are City Bird and Virgin Express, the latter of which is owned by Richard Branson, whose Virgin Atlantic Airways has consistently shaken up British commercial air transport since its birth in 1984.

Two new British carriers, easyJ et and Debonair, have invaded the turf of established carriers British Airways and British Midland. The emergence of easy Jet is particularly interesting, as it is the carrier most resembling the low-cost carriers that have so dramatically altered the American airline industry. Following the approach pioneered by celebrated American low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines, easy Jet exclusively uses one type of aircraft (like Southwest it utilizes an all B-737 fleet, an operating decision that greatly reduces maintenance and training costs), offers no-frills service, and only operates flights out of secondary airports (which are less congested and have lower landing fees than principal airports). This strategy has enabled easy Jet to make a dent in the dominance of the incumbent airlines; when easy Jet began operations in 1995, it only offered service from Luton to Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland; four years later the company provides service to 13 European destinations.25

The Incumbents' Reaction to Competition

Some of the established airlines, notably including Aer Lingus,26 paid the newcomers little mind and charged out to take full advantage of their new rights, opening new destinations, and increasing capacity and frequency in others. Most of these efforts ultimately cost the carriers money, particularly those that had not tackled the problem of their regulation-era inefficient cost structures.

Struck by the need to radically lower costs and heighten efficiency, most of the European airlines -both private and state-owned - have embarked on restructuring programs, although the severity of these programs has varied. Scandinavia's SAS readied itself for its first bouts with fledgling Norwegian carrier Braathens SAAF and Denmark's Maersk Air by painlessly eliminating $396 million of non-core related expenses.27 For most carriers, however, restructuring efforts have centered on painful staff reductions.

Much as was the case in the pre-deregulation US airline industry, European airline staffs were prime beneficiaries of the regulation-blunted competition. This system, in which labor satisfaction - from both a staff size as well as salary level vantage point - was acquired through unsustainable employment practices, guaranteed an ultimate day of reckoning, for both the airlines and their employees.

Faced with the reality that European airline costs are approximately forty percent higher than those of their American counterparts28 - even while the most productive European carrier (BA) has not achieved the same level of productivity as the American industry mean -the European airlines have begun to retool themselves. Part of this effort has been undertaken by hiring veterans of the immediate post-regulation American mayhem to oversee their transformations. In this vein, Lufthansa followed the leads of Air France, Swiss Air, and Virgin Express, and brought in an American airline executive to oversee its restructuring. One of former American Airlines director Frederick Reid's first moves as Lufthansa Chairman was to announce a cost lowering target of $600 million by the year 2001, a cut to be largely achieved through a ten percent reduction in the company's management and administrative ranks.29

However, Lufthansa and other carriers are discovering that employees and unions will not accept such measures quietly. This phenomenon was learned by Air France in 1998 when their pilots reacted to a proposal to bring flight deck salaries in line with industry averages by conducting a costly and embarrassing strike on the eve of the French­ hosted World Cup.

Despite labor difficulties, most European airlines have responded to the new environment by restructuring and acting in a more competitive manner. As with the US experience, a good deal of the benefit for European airlines from liberalization is found in the impetus it provides to operate more efficiently. In the United States, deregulation allowed carriers to structure operations in a more efficient manner, significantly lowering costs and, consequently, fares. For its part, the European airline sector liberalization program has also prompted some efficiency gains, some increases in competition, and some cost decreases. The overall picture, however, remains disappointingly unchanged.

Noting the positive changes, one does observe fare decreases born of increased competition. The UK Civil Aviation Authority reported that during the period in which competition-enhancing measures have been in effect in Europe, national carrier dominance over the civil aviation sector has fallen from over 80 percent in 1992 to less than 70 percent in 1997.30 Similarly, the national airlines' dominance of their local markets fell from 75 percent share in 1993 to 60 percent at the end of 1997.31 As a result of this increase in competition, leisure ticket prices have dropped by five percent since 1996.32

However, overall ticket price decreases have not approached the levels desired, or even anticipated. Indeed, some fares have gone up, especially full-fare tickets, which are up five percent over the same period, rendering them forty percent more costly on a fare/statute miles basis than full-fare tickets in the United States.33 Why have the results differed so drastically from the American model? The answer lies in a combination of inability of European carriers to achieve cost-saving efficiency gains and continued shortfalls in the stimulation of competition. The efficiency gain shortfalls are for the most part blameless because of the less -relative to the United States -applicable nature of the hub-and-spoke network in geographically smaller Europe. However, the disappointing lack of competition is overwhelmingly attributable to market manipulations by national governments and Europe's incumbent carriers.

The Competition Factor

While the level of competition has increased, the size of the increases has been minimal. A March 1997 study conducted by the EU revealed that 64 percent of intra­European routes are still operated by one carrier and approximately 30 percent of the routes are serviced by only two airlines. Hence, a mere six percent of routes connecting two European cities receive service by three or more carriers34 -a major reason why fares have remained higher than expected. A study on the forty busiest European cross-border routes revealed that between 1986 and 1996 the lowest business class fares rose 36 percent on those routes (23 in all) on which there was genuine competition (i.e., three or more carriers) and 48 percent on the seventeen routes which were served by a monopoly or duopoly. Similarly, the lowest economy fares rose 28 percent on the contested routes and 46 percent in the monopoly/duopoly markets.35

The difference in price between competitive routes and those serviced by a duopoly of carriers is seen in juxtaposing fares between Heathrow Airport in London and Frankfurt and those from Heathrow to Hamburg. Although of similar distance, the return fare in the heavily serviced Heathrow and Frankfurt market is around £294. Conversely, the Heathrow-Hamburg market, served by only Lufthansa and BA, features a round-trip fare of £442 -a 33 percent price difference.36

What has prevented the anticipated competition from flourishing? A major reason seems to lie in the fact that the legislation enacted did not consider outside factors that have stunted competition, as well as the ability of the incumbent airlines to protect their dominant positions.

Competition Stifling Factors I: Airports

The most important external factors revolve around Europe's busiest airports, specifically access to them and the costs associated with maintaining a presence at them. The costs of doing business at European airports centers on ground handling charges,37 which, often operated as a monopoly by the airport authority, are frequently so exorbitantly priced as to preclude the option of start-up carriers offering service to them. However, even more daunting to the potential vitality of a start-up carrier is the likelihood that it will not even be able to gain access to Europe's most important airports.

While all airlines complain about the dearth of slots38 at London's Heathrow Airport, for a new carrier it is not only virtually impossible to obtain permission to fly from Heathrow with the commercially requisite number of frequencies, but only marginally less difficult at Frankfurt am Main, Brussels Airport, or Charles de Gaulle in Paris. This situation pushes them to secondary facilities, which are generally more difficult for passengers to access and which do not have the connection possibilities available at major airports. Some of the start-up carriers, such as EasyJet, which operates out of London's distant Luton Airport, have adapted to these constraints. Generally speaking, however, inability to offer service from major airports constrains a new airline's ability to compete with established carriers.

Incriminatingly, several industry officials believe that access to airport facilities is also granted on a case-by-case basis, with "home-town" carriers receiving unfair assistance. Former head of Virgin Express Jonathan Ornstein charged Frankfurt am Main officials with aiding Lufthansa in its competition with his company, noting that a decision by Delta to drop six of its intra-Europe slots at the airport had no bearing on Virgin Express' inability to acquire a slot there. In an increasingly familiar objection, the Virgin Express chief complained "we can't get a slot in Frankfurt even after Delta released a gaggle."39

Mr. Ornstein similarly expressed a belief that airport officials in Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, and Brussels provide undue assistance to the national carriers. While admitting that Heathrow is genuinely slot constrained, Mr. Ornstein accused other European airports of fabricating reasons for protecting their airlines, saying "they call it capacity constraint, but actually it's just restriction. In Brussels or Milan, you could fire a cannon down the runaway and not hit anything."40 Aviation economists believe that conditions like these play a major role in present and future competition shortfalls. As aviation economist Pedro Marin states, "the final outcome [with regard to a competitive air travel sector] will depend on access to airport facilities that are tightly controlled by the national flag carriers. If these services are not available on competitive terms they may become the main barrier to entry."41

Competition Stifling Factors II: State Aid

As previously discussed, the strong nationalistic emotions that European air carriers have historically evinced are not conducive to discipline in the management of an airline. Indeed, since 1991 alone, national governments have offered cash infusions of more than $12 billion to Air France, Olympic Airways, Alitalia, Iberia, TAP Air Portugal, Sabena, and Aer Lingus.42

To combat the effects of these distortions, technically illegal according to Articles 92-94 of the Treaty of Rome, which forbid distortionary government subsidies, the EU has adopted a stance which attempts to curtail them while not totally declaring war on member country governments. To give struggling carriers latitude to put their respective houses in order, DG IV instituted a "first-time, last-time" policy which mandated one trip to the treasury for the purposes of shoring up and trimming down operations during particularly difficult economic times. The stipulations attached to these disbursements have sought to ensure that the aid is used for controlling damage rather than for expansion, or to aid the airlines in competition with other carriers. These limitations include caps on capacity in competitive markets, a moratorium on fleet growth, submission to periodic financial audits, and a decree that the recipient airline not be a fare leader on routes with specific airlines.43

The somewhat ad hoc manner in which the EU has enforced these mandates has angered Europe's privately owned air carriers, who must compete on a playing field potentially made unlevel by market distorting subsidies. This frustration was exhibited when shareholder-owned Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) charged that Air France was using its 1994-cleared $3. 7 billion cash infusion from the state to compete with it on several key routes. Ronald van der Maaten, KLM's Vice President of Public Affairs, angrily denounced EU wavering on the issue, stating "Air France was not allowed to be a tariff leader on routes competing with us. We have proven that they have used lower fares but the Commission said that since they had addressed the matter it was okay."44 Similarly, Lufthansa's Frederick Reid asserts that the state-owned carriers use the subsidies to dump prices.45

Anticompetitive Tactics by Incumbent Carriers

Just as state-owned airlines have perpetuated market distortions, so too have Europe's privately owned airlines acted to protect their turf. Many of these actions are predatory toward the Continent's fledgling carriers - especially the new, low-cost airlines -who represent cause for concern to the incumbents. The proliferation of low­cost start-ups is worrying to the established carriers not only because of the effects the new competition has on their respective bottom lines, but also because of the implications their presence will have the during the next economic down-tum.

Recent experience has illustrated a new phenomenon which sees the financial losses suffered by major airlines during times of economic difficulty exacerbated by the presence of low cost carriers. During such periods, business travelers -the key revenue source of the major airlines - are compelled to seek lower cost (even if less convenient and comfortable) modes of travel.46 For this reason, the presence of airlines with lower cost structures is a serious threat - a threat that the major carriers are unlikely to accept gently.

Witness KLM, whose management in 1997 sent a fax to easy Jet's offices urging the new carrier not to begin service to Amsterdam from its London base, purportedly out of concern that the new airline would find the market too competitive and could go out of business as a direct result. When EasyJet ignored the advice and began flying to Amsterdam, KLM drastically lowered its fares on the route, practically forcing the upstart from the market.47 EasyJ et filed a grievance with Brussels who staged a surprise "raid" on KLM's offices, confiscating documents relevant to the case. In the end, KLM was forced to raise its fares in line with the cost of providing the service.48 British Airways has also been accused of engaging in predatory tactics, although its methods have been considerably more subtle than KLM' s ill-advised warning fax.

To compete with the upstart carriers that have emerged in its markets, British Airways has followed the lead of several American carriers and created a low-cost arm. "Go," BA' s new entrant in the intra-Europe market, ostensibly mimics Delta Express and US Airways' MetroJet in creating a new company with lower paid employees, a single aircraft type, and no-frills service out of secondary airports to profitably compete in the low-fare market. Go's competitors, however, charge that the company represents nothing more than a ploy by British Airways to offer unprofitable fares in competitive markets to drive the new-comers out of business. EasyJet contends that BA's guarantee of Go's aircraft leases, and below market-price sale of insurance, advertising, and other services represent an illegal subsidy.49 Furthermore, Debonair, EasyJet, Ryanair, and Virgin Express all charge that Go's pricing strategy is predatory, citing numerous fares that they contend no airline striving to break even could offer.

For their part, British Airways and Go deny the allegations. Barbara Cassani, head of operations at Go, maintains that several of the prices were merely promotional and will not be offered indefinitely. 50 Richard Branson, whose Virgin Atlantic Airways has taken on British Airways in the trans-Atlantic market since its inception and whose Virgin Express is competing with BA-and now Go-in the intra-Europe market, does not believe it. . "BA has done a lot of anticompetitive things over the years," he says. "I think they are determined to get rid of low-cost carriers and subsidize Go to make it happen."51

For reasons related to this type of pressure, only 20 of the 80 airlines birthed by 1993's liberalization measures were still in operation by 1996.52 Consequently, the new carriers still in existence have implored Brussels to ensure that, at the very least, the playing field on which they compete is level.

Brussels' Response

The, EU Transport Commission is taking the unusual step of hiring Europe's biggest computer services firm, Cap Gemini, to construct models that will assist in determining whether the airlines are charging "unjust" (either too low or too high) prices on relevant routes.53 This "initiative was born of research by the EU that revealed that costs remained excessively high on the routes still operated under monopoly or duopoly conditions. EU Transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock suggested the EU would take action on the matter, pointing out that "on some routes our analysis shows that fully· flexible fares are significantly higher than can be justified by costs."54

While most feel that the EU has riot done enough about issues relatedto over-priced airport services and gate access at congested airports, experts acknowledge that the Comn1ission is beginning to assert itself in these areas. Progress on the latter initiative was evidenced by the eventual capitulation by the French Ministry of Transport in a two-year battle with Brussels over the granting of coveted slots at Paris' Orly Airport for British Airways, despite the deleterious effects the move would inevitably have on state-owned Air Inter.

The Union has also asserted itself in the domain of regulating state financial assistance to government-owned carriers, with market proponents celebrating the 1994 refusal to allow a FFr 1.5 billion ($277.5 million) injection to Air France. Deeming that reforms at the inefficient parastatal were not occurring at the agreed rate, the Commission blocked the planned disbursement, a decision that was disputed by the airline, but upheld by the European Court of Justice in December 1996.55 Similarly, the EU has shown itself willing to investigate and punish anti-competitive behavior on the part of incumbent carriers. Evidence of this willingness was illustrated when the Commission forced KLM to raise its fares on routes on which it was competing with EasyJet and when it conducted a surprise raid on Aer Lingus' offices in Dublin to investigate price-dumping charges made by Ryanair.56

Conclusion

The Brussels-mandated liberalization on Europe's airline sector plainly has made progress in its mission to promote enhanced competition and lower fares in the industry, as is evidenced by a net drop in fares and greatly increased levels of service. Nevertheless, the overall picutre of Europe's commercial aviation sector is disappointingly unchanged, due to a continued combination of slot allocations inherited from the less liberalized era, anti-competitive behavior on the part of the Continent's incumbent carriers, and lingering national sentiment resulting in preferential treatment being accorded the flag carriers.

Ironically, it appears that more regulation is needed for the EU's deregulation measures to achieve their desired effect. For Europe to have a truly competitive airline industry, Brussels must use its mandate to ensure that: 1) all carriers have adequate access to the Continent's busiest airports, even ifi t forces established airlines to relinquish slots; 2) airport ground handling services are offered in a competitive environment so that fledgling carriers are not priced out of certain markets; 3) state-owned airlines do not utilize their national sponsorship to gain an unfair advantage in their competition with private carriers; and, 4) established airlines are not allowed free reign in their campaigns to eliminate new competition from their markets. Only when the Union is able to make inroads towards the attainment oft hese competition-enhancing goals will the EU's airline deregulation program realize its considerable potential to protect the interests of European consumers.

References