Sunday, March 25, 2007

The EU's "open skies" agreement and Houston

This past week, the European Union approved an "open skies" deal that scraps most restrictions on trans-Atlantic flights. The deal, which has already been approved by the United States, is intended to enhance competition among airlines by allowing them to fly anywhere in Europe to anywhere in the United States, and vice versa. The arrangement, which goes into effect on March 30, 2008, replaces the current patchwork of agreements between individual European nations and the United States which restrict the overseas destinations of airlines on either side of the Atlantic; some of these existing arrangments date back to the end of the Second World War. The EU estimates that the deal will cause 25 million more people to fly between the United States and Europe within the first five years of the agreement's implementation, and that fliers would see almost $16 billion in savings as a result. Sounds good to me.

Hometown airline Continental is not wasting any time taking advantage of the new agreement; they've announced plans to ask for permission to begin flying between Bush Intercontinental and London Heathrow as the agreement goes into effect. (Continental already flies between Houston and London's Gatwick Airport, but there seems to be a consensus that Heathrow is London's preferred airport).

This is fine, but what I'd really like to see is for Continental use this opportunity to offer more non-stop service between Houston and cities in Europe. I realize that Continental prefers Newark to be their hub for European flights and Houston to be their hub for Latin American flights, but c'mon! Right now, only four European destinations are served by nonstop flights from Houston: London (Continental and British Airways), Paris (Continental and Air France), Amsterdam (Continental and KLM) and Frankfurt (Lufthansa). It only seems logical that the nation's fourth-largest city, and a city of such critical importance to the world's energy economy, should have nonstop connections to more than just four European cities.

I find it hard to believe, for example, that there isn't sufficient demand to make nonstop service between Houston and major European cities like Madrid and Rome profitable. What about Dublin? Berlin? Barcelona? Moscow?

The bid for direct flights to Heathrow is a good start. Let's hope Continental doesn't stop there and that they use this new agreement to their full advantage by persuing more European destinations from Bush Intercontinental. An expansion of European service from Houston would be an advantage to the city's economy and a boon to the city's travelers (myself included, of course).

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