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Pogue dinner a timely reminder of the importance of Open Skies

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It was my great pleasure last night to attend the L. Welch Pogue Award dinner, where Paul V. Mifsud was honored as this year’s recipient.

The Pogue Award, named in honor of the Civil Aeronautics Board chairman who forged the civil aviation treaties and framework that govern global air transportation to this day, is presented by the International Aviation Club of Washington DC and ATW sister publication Aviation Week. Previous recipients include Bob Crandall, Herb Kelleher, Alfred Kahn, Norm Mineta, Jurgen Weber and John Byerly.

Paul was VP government & legal affairs, USA, for KLM between 1994 and 2010 and a key negotiator in talks that would eventually lead to the pioneering US-Netherlands Open Skies agreement and the world’s first antitrust immunity alliance, between KLM and Northwest Airlines.

Among those who paid tribute to Paul and his work was IATA general counsel Jeffrey Shane, who was on the US side of many of those Open Skies talks and is himself a Pogue recipient.

Listening to Jeff’s remarks, I asked if he would be willing to share them with a wider audience and, I’m happy to report, he immediately agreed. Jeff’s address is posted here. It’s an elegant tribute and a compelling insight into those days in the 1960s when, as Jeff says, the only organization with antitrust immunity was IATA, which governments depended on to set airfare prices.

“It would be a long time before governments figured out that they could simply get out of the way, allow airlines to compete, and let the market decide what the appropriate price of an airline ticket should be,” Jeff says.

When they did, it was predominantly through the dogged perseverance and vision of the Netherlands, KLM and Paul Mifsud. Jeff details some of the frustration and “snarky letters” that were exchanged as the Dutch team gradually persuaded the US team that yes, even a “small” country like Holland could bring something to the vast table that US airlines believed was the jewel in commercial aviation’s crown.

Doug Steenland, former general counsel, president, and CEO of Northwest Airlines, and now AIG board chairman, also delivered remarks and a tribute to Paul. And he made a call to the industry, urging it to identify and take the next brave step in global air transportation. Open Skies and immunized alliances, he pointed out, have brought the world closer and opened up, literally, a world of travel choices to the public. But it’s still an industry governed and constrained by unique regulations, including ownership rules.

The remarks last night reminded me that in all the hoo-hah right now about the Gulf carriers and Open Skies, some have forgotten – or simply do not understand -  just how critical these aviation treaties are to the type of airline travel we enjoy today and how misguided it would be to start reverting to a pre-liberalized environment.

Many congratulations to Paul on this well-deserved recognition for his visionary work. Now, who will take up Doug’s challenge and become the industry’s next brave visionary?

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