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"MAC, wooing British Airways, will lobby for U.S.-U.K. open skies"



Tuesday, August 15, 2000

MAC, wooing British Airways, will lobby for U.S.-U.K. open skies
Tony Kennedy
The Minneapolis (MN) Star Tribune


The Metropolitan Airports Commission, which privately has been wooing
British Airways to launch service to Minneapolis-St. Paul, will send an
official to London next month to lobby for an open skies agreement between
the United States and United Kingdom.

Bill Wren, the MAC official in charge of recruiting new airline service, has
scheduled his trip to coincide with the next round of bilateral aviation
negotiations between the two countries.

The two countries have been in aviation talks for years, holding three-to
four-day rounds of negotiations on an intermittent basis. The talks stemmed
from a desire by U.S. carriers to gain more access to London's Heathrow
Airport.

MAC spokeswoman Amy von Walter confirmed that Wren will be in London to
advocate for an open skies agreement.

But she and Wren declined to comment on the extent of talks the MAC has had
with British Airways. A call left Monday morning for the public relations
staff at British Airways was not returned.

"We're always looking to add service to Minneapolis-St. Paul and obviously
the open skies agreement would affect that," Von Walter said.

Under the existing pact that governs aviation between the United States and
U.K., Minneapolis-St. Paul is off-limits to British Airways because it isn't
among U.S. destinations designated for service by U.K. carriers. An open
skies agreement would lift those restrictions.

A successful accord also potentially would open the Twin Cities to British
carriers such as Virgin Atlantic and British Midland Airways, but British
Airways is the only one of the three known to have had serious talks with
the MAC.

The MAC's discussions with British Airways have been serious enough for Wren
to measure potential business community support for the carrier. It has a
reputation for providing royal service; for instance, business class
passengers on transoceanic British Airways flights can sleep prone on chairs
that convert to 6-foot beds.

"I'm kind of excited about it," said John Smith, a corporate travel
executive at General Mills Inc. and chairman of the Twin Cities Airports
Task Force, a private nonprofit group that advocates more local airline
competition.

Smith said he and Wren have "chatted" about the possibility of British
Airways entering the Twin Cities market.

"BA is one of the top airlines in the world. Certainly, it's an upscale
service," Smith said.

Bob Stassen, a former airline recruiter for the MAC, said British Airways
"definitely would be a feather in our airport's cap." Previous attempts to
recruit the airline were unsuccessful because of the absence of an open
skies agreement, and because British Airways was reluctant to enter U.S.
markets not heavily served by American Airlines, its largest alliance
partner, Stassen said.

Lately, there has been speculation that American might buy Eagan-based
Northwest Airlines and turn Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport into
an American hub.

While nothing appears imminent on that front, British Airways is in
confirmed merger talks with Northwest's chief international alliance
partner, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. That situation has given rise to
speculative media reports that British Airways, KLM and Northwest could end
up in a three-way transatlantic flying partnership with antitrust immunity.

But the U.S. Transportation Department has indicated that an open skies
agreement is critical to any expansion by British Airways in the United
States.

"BA should not count on a possible relationship with KLM to give them access
to the U.S. market without the need for opening the U.S.-U.K. market
overall," Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley said Monday.

Joe Brancatelli, an Internet travel writer who recently visited with British
Airways officials in London, put the chances at only one in three for a
U.S.-U.K. open skies settlement within the next 12 months. Moreover, he
said, he doesn't sense that British Airways is anxious to expand to more
U.S. cities.

"You could call me five years from now and we could be talking about the
same things," Brancatelli said. "I think the chances of an open skies
agreement could actually recede over the next several months."

But Brancatelli said he understands why airport officials and business
travelers in the Twin Cities are delighted by the idea of attracting British
Airways.

"From a product standpoint, they are impeccable," Brancatelli said. "Flight
for flight, day to day, they are the best international airline that an
American is likely to fly."

British Airways' principal hub is at London's Heathrow Airport. If BA were
to begin serving the Twin Cities, it would compete directly against
Northwest, which currently flies once daily from the Twin Cities to London's
Gatwick airport. Meanwhile, the U.S. Transportation Department is
considering Northwest's request for route authority to Heathrow from the
Twin Cities and Detroit.

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