DOES THE UNITED STATES EMBRACE restrictive international aviation policies behind a smokescreen of free enterprise rhetoric?

That was the question debated recently before the International Aviation Club in Washington by Henri A. Wassenbergh, senior vice president of KLM, national airline of the Netherlands, and Matthew V. Scocozza, assistant secretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation.The quick-witted Mr. Wassenbergh provided a tough match for Mr. Scocozza, but the DOT official clearly won the day in his defense of current U.S. aviation policy. Mr. Wassenbergh said the United States paints itself as liberal on aviation matters when in fact it is quite restrictive. International carriers are not free to do business in the United States as they would like. They may not carry passengers domestically. They must get permission from Washington for everything they do, and permission is granted only if the United States gets something in return from the foreign carrier's government...It's a policy of quid pro quo, not free trade, Mr. Wassenbergh said.

Absolutely true, but as Mr. Scocozza pointed out, U.S. policy merely reflects the restrictive aviation regimes adopted by other governments. The United States will not give European carriers free reign in this country

because U.S. carriers are not afforded similar freedom in Europe as a whole. Restrictive ground handling policies are a case in point.

The overall issue is complicated by geography. By virtue of its size, the United States has a far bigger domestic airline market than any single country in Europe. Carriers like KLM, therefore, have far more to gain if awarded domestic trading rights here than U.S. airlines have to gain from domestic trading rights in, say, the Netherlands. The demand for air service between places like Amsterdam and Rotterdam simply does not compare with the demand for service between places like New York and Chicago. To be fair, Europe as a whole would have to give U.S. carriers the same freedom and rights that European carriers seek in the United States.

Mr. Wassenbergh said the European governments are working toward a more liberal, continent-wide aviation policy. The United States, therefore, should drop its practice of negotiating bilateral agreements in favor of a multinational approach. It should agree to bring aviation under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Geneva-based organization that governs world trade. Such a move would be disastrous for U.S. carriers. As Mr. Scocozza said, the common aviation policy adopted by the governments of Europe would reflect the policies of the most restrictive nations rather than the most liberal. The United States would lose rights already won from such nations as West Germany and the Netherlands, which have adopted more liberal aviation regimes.

For the present, the United States appears far better off negotiating bilaterally and playing what Mr. Wassenbergh correctly described as an international game of tit for tat.

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