Douglas Lavin, IATA’s Vice President, Member and External Relations, argues that the US Fair and Open Skies Act is based on false logic rather than false flags

This summer, the Fair and Open Skies Act was introduced in the US House of Representatives. Among other things, this proposed law would prevent entry into the US market of so-called flag of convenience carriers. Many in Congress, normally strong supporters of Open Skies, seek to pass this unilateral and wholly unjustified barrier to the US market.

The bill was introduced following an unsuccessful effort by the Air Lines Pilots Association (ALPA) and other US labor organizations to persuade successive US administrations to deny an application by Norwegian Air International (NAI) to serve the US from Europe on the grounds that Norwegian was operating as a flag of convenience carrier.

A “flag of convenience” almost always referred to the practice in the maritime industry of registering a ship in a country other than that of the ship’s owners and flying the flag of that state of registry.

The practice began in the 1920s, when ships owned by US companies that wished to serve alcohol to their passengers during Prohibition were registered in Panama, and has grown since then as ship owners register in other countries to avoid taxes or labor, safety, and/or environmental regulations.

Open Skies agreements have produced competition that has benefitted consumers and economies alike

Today, after several accidents and environmental incidents, these flag of convenience ships are often subject to special inspections by various ports before being allowed to dock.

Proponents of adding a new flag of convenience prohibition to the US aviation market argue that it is necessary to ensure that commercial aviation does not go the way of commercial shipping. Airlines must not be permitted to “forum shop” to avoid standards that are taken for granted in the US, they say.

However, there are major differences between the legal and regulatory environments governing the maritime and aviation industries.

Under the principle of Freedom of the Seas, countries can establish their own laws and regulations on the safety and security of vessels registered under their flags. This has allowed some countries to offer less stringent regulatory environments to foreign shipowners.

Not so in the case of commercial aviation, where the Chicago Convention and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) promote the highest possible degree of safety and uniformity in civil aviation regulations, standards, and recommended practices.

A host of international inspection regimes, including ICAO’s Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme, the International Aviation Safety Assessments of the US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), and others provide routine auditing of states’ capability for safety oversight.

Moreover, every country has the right under bilateral agreements that govern international flights to insist that foreign airlines meet rigorous standards, which the US determines by thoroughly inspecting a foreign carrier’s operations. Countries can also factor in labor considerations, as was done in the US-EU Open Skies Agreement.    

Commercial aviation is the safest mode of transportation in the world, in large part because governments came together to establish global standards. At the same time, Open Skies agreements have produced competition that has benefitted consumers and economies alike.

Let’s not use irrelevant and loaded terms to establish illogical and damaging barriers to a seamless global commercial aviation system.