Column: Reclaiming Aviation's Pioneering Spirit

Fri Aug 17, 2012 4:46pm EDT

(The views expressed are the author’s own and not those of Reuters.)

By Annie Petsonk

(Reuters) - Every year on August 19 - the birthday (in 1871) of first-in-flight pioneer Orville Wright - the United States observes National Aviation Day to celebrate the courage and innovation of the Wright brothers and many other aerospace geniuses who've launched us into the skies.

There's much to celebrate. Since Wright's days, the U.S. aviation industry has been a force for incredible dynamism, fostering international and cross-cultural understanding, serving as an important lubricant to business and trade, shrinking the world and changing it for the better.

That's why it's so disappointing that U.S. airlines these days seem timid rather than dynamic, and more likely to throw fits than produce feats of innovation. Their latest campaign to resist progress? Badgering Congress to pass legislation that could ignite a trade war with Europe over carbon pollution.

When it comes to burning fossil fuels, if the world's airlines were their own country, they'd be the seventh largest polluter in the world. Though emissions from aviation are expected to continue soaring, there's currently no worldwide program to cut this pollution. The International Civil Aviation Organization has been stalling on that for 15 years.

With progress stuck internationally, the public in Europe - where there are already limits on global warming pollution - began to question why airlines were exempt from pollution controls. So the European Union passed a new law that requires all planes landing or taking off from European airports to cut pollution beginning this year.

The law's cuts are very modest (only a 5 percent reduction below 2004-2006 levels), but you'd never know from U.S. airline CEOs' extreme efforts to thwart it.

First they sued to stop the law, but the European Union's highest court ruled against them.

Now they're lobbying Congress to pass a bill making it illegal for U.S. carriers to comply with Europe's law. The airlines say it breaches U.S. sovereignty for Europeans to hold them accountable for their pollution. Never mind that U.S. laws prohibit foreign carriers from a multitude of activities in exchange for the privilege of landing at U.S. airports. Talk about a double standard.

How often does Congress single out another country's law and make it illegal for U.S. companies to obey? We have found only two cases ever - South Africa's apartheid, and Arab nations' anti-Israel boycott in the late 1970s.

What's more, the airlines want to break the European pollution law, and do so with impunity. The bill they're pushing would require the U.S. secretary of transportation to hold the airlines "harmless" from any penalties under Europe's pollution law.

Under the bill, if U.S. airlines pollute and get fined by Europe, the transportation secretary would either have to dun U.S. taxpayers for the money to pay the fine, or he would use an obscure law to impose retaliatory fines on EU airlines. The EU might then reasonably decide to counter-retaliate under its own law.

We'd have a full-scale trade war.

Mind you, the European law is expected to add at most $6 to a transatlantic ticket - the price of a beer on a Delta flight these days. (Savvy airlines could even make money from the law.) The major U.S. airlines, including United and American, have already raised their fares $6 to cover the cost. That number is paltry compared with how expensive a trade war would be, and the cost of it would also be borne by the flying public.

In spite of these risks, a bill to unleash this madness made it through a Senate committee last month. The CEO of the airlines' international trade association, Tony Tyler, said recently he would "regret it if airlines get caught in the crossfire of a trade war," but the passage of this bill, pressed by the airlines, would provoke just such a war.

Happy Aviation Day. Would the industry's next generation of pioneers please stand up?

(Annie Petsonk is the international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), a leading national nonprofit organization that creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships.)

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