How Do Open Skies Agreements Work?

The world today is better connected than ever before, and one can see this on several levels. For example, digital technology has enabled (largely!) seamless online communication with our friends, relatives, and colleagues worldwide. However, this increased connectivity is also reflected in airline schedules. This is partly due to open skies agreements offering improved flexibility when it comes to international travel. But how do they work?

Open Skies Boeing 757
Previously, Open Skies was also the name of a French airline. Photo: Wo st 01 via Wikimedia Commons

What are open skies agreements?

Open skies agreements serve to foster competition and flexibility on international commercial air routes. They do so by granting airlines from the countries involved operational rights to fly passengers and cargo in and out of the other nations in question.

These agreements are bilateral in nature. For example, the EU-US open skies agreement simultaneously allows EU carriers to fly to anywhere in the US, and US carriers to fly to anywhere in the EU.

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Aircraft contrails
Open skies agreements are bilateral, allowing all participants to benefit from them. Photo: Getty Images

Open skies agreements are lauded as deals that benefit both airlines and their passengers, as well as unlocking cultural links. The US Department of State claims that:

“Open Skies agreements have vastly expanded international passenger and cargo flights to and from the United States, promoting increased travel and trade, enhancing productivity, and spurring high-quality job opportunities and economic growth. 

“Open Skies agreements do this by eliminating government interference in the commercial decisions of air carriers about routes, capacity, and pricing, freeing carriers to provide more affordable, convenient, and efficient air service for consumers.”

Recent new deals

One of the biggest fears when it came to the UK’s departure from the EU the potential loss of its existing air links. After all, Brexit meant that the country would no longer be covered by the aforementioned EU-US open skies agreement. However, in November 2018, it was announced that the UK had managed to strike a similar deal with the US, allowing flights between the two countries to continue as before.

Qatar Airways A350-1000
Qatar announced in 2019 that it would sign an open skies agreement with the EU to improve access.      Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying.

The following February, Qatar announced that it would be signing an open skies agreement with the EU by the end of the year. The agreement was intended to allow EU operators full access to the country, and remove the need for them to have a local sales agent based there.

Amid the difficulties of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, one might have expected that network expansion is not high on many airlines’ priority lists. Nonetheless, October 2020 saw the US sign an open skies agreement with Bangladesh to establish direct aviation ties between the countries. A benefit of this was said to be increased codesharing opportunities.

A name also used elsewhere

You may also recognize the term ‘Open Skies’ as having been the name of a former French airline. This boutique carrier initially operated a small fleet of Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft between Paris and New York. These planes came from British Airways, which had wanted to expand its operations by establishing a European subsidiary.

Level France Airbus A330
When OpenSkies became Level France, it switched to an all-A330 fleet. Photo: Anna Zvereva via Flickr

Under the ownership of BA’s holding company IAG (International Airlines Group), the carrier was able to operate the Paris-New York route thanks to the aforementioned EU-US open skies agreement. Its name paid tribute for this, although it was branded as one word.

OpenSkies even joined the oneworld alliance in 2012, before being rebranded as Level France in 2018. Level itself is an IAG-owned low-cost carrier. At this stage, it swapped its five Boeing aircraft for three Airbus A330s. However, amid the coronavirus pandemic last year, the airline ceased operations in July 2020. As such, for now, the term ‘Open Skies’ only refers, once again, to the aviation agreements that have helped galvanize international connectivity.

Were you aware of how open skies agreements worked? What do you make of this system as a whole? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.