Throw open the skies and get your passports ready! You may have heard by now that the proverbial jump across the pond is about to get much easier and, perhaps, cheaper. As of March 30, an “open skies” agreement between the United States and the European Union has gone into effect, opening up more possibilities for the recently struggling airline industry than you can shake a complimentary pack of peanuts at. Read it in all of its legalese glory here [PDF].

“Open skies” translates to several significant changes in international air relations. First, it lifts restrictions on which airlines can fly between the U.S. and the E.U. Second, the agreement permits European airlines flying to the U.S. to take off from any ol’ country they like, rather than strictly from their country of origin.

As a result, U.S.-E.U. flight traffic in the next three months is expected to grow 8 percent over last year, and traffic between the U.S. and Heathrow Airport alone is projected to swell 31 percent. However, airlines are still constrained by little things like the number of available runways and — let’s not forget — rising fuel costs.

So far, I’ve seen few examinations of the possible environmental impacts of this agreement. Instead, many are eager to celebrate the expected perks, which include more nonstop transatlantic flights (as more routes are added), more cities to fly out of (not just major hubs like New York and L.A.), and lower fares (from increased competition). Not to be a Debbie Downer, but it seems to me that the open skies deal and its implications raise two important questions:

  1. Will increased transatlantic traffic lead to increased overall air travel, and, therefore, increased jet fuel usage and higher greenhouse gas emissions?
  2. Will the E.U. force foreign (e.g., U.S.) airlines to comply with European carbon emissions restrictions (via higher landing fees) when the airline sector joins the European carbon market after 2011?

In a working paper from the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, a pair of researchers used a model of domestic and international tourist numbers and flows to determine the answer [PDF] to the first question. They projected that U.S.-E.U. passenger flights would go up between 1 and 14 percent but that overall global air traffic would stay approximately the same, due to a proportionate fall in the number of flights from the U.S. to non-E.U. countries. The model suggests there would be a 0.7 percent increase in emissions as a result of this displacement of flight traffic.

The study is limited by the exclusion of business passengers and domestic flights, but it still serves as an excellent consideration of the open skies agreement’s impact on carbon dioxide emissions. Apparently, general long distance travel patterns aren’t expected to change much: People will still fly about the same amount as before, but lower fares between the U.S. and the E.U. will incentivize them simply to switch their travel destinations for Europe or the U.S.

However, I wonder if this study is neglecting perhaps another significant factor affecting carbon dioxide emissions: the displacement of flights within the U.S. as travelers now flying nonstop manage to cut out unnecessary flights on their way to Europe. For example, instead of flying from Dallas to Memphis to Amsterdam, a passenger could now fly direct from Dallas-Fort Worth to Amsterdam and slice two hours off of the total flight time. And the previous two flight routes would likely lose traffic as a result, further streamlining how people get from Point U.S. to Point E.U. (and vice versa). Didn’t Gore suggest something along these lines to cut emissions a while back? Dare I dream of the possibility that “open skies” could actually decrease net CO2 emissions in this regard?

Of course not. Even though travelers already doing long-distance flying may get between Europe and the United States more efficiently, others may take advantage of fare deals to fly internationally instead of domestically, as they might have done previously. Awesome. That has the potential to push total airline emissions up by 3.5 percent rather than 0.7 percent.

Going back to the second question, the actual agreement says very little about emissions and leaves out any discussion of the E.U. carbon trading regime, as the U.S. was previously threatening action with the International Court of Justice should the E.U. try to bring foreign airlines under the regulations of its carbon trading scheme. The blog Marketing Green extensively explores what could happen to the airline industry — or any industry — in such a carbon-regulated market.

What Europe says about the “open skies” agreement concerning climate change and emissions is this:

In the field of air traffic management and environmental protection, the European Commission and the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority have created the Atlantic Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions (AIRE) Partnership to improve the environmental footprint of air transport with environmentally friendly air traffic procedures from gate to gate.

Hmm … do I doubt the efficacy of international committees? I might.

On the other hand, the U.S. says:

[The agreement] does not affect either side’s position on sensitive environmental issues, such as emissions.

How profoundly … predictable. The E.U. will likely push for emissions regulation, and the U.S. will likely push against it. That’s a multi-lingual headache waiting to happen.

Sigh. Henry David Thoreau would be so disappointed in us. He was the one who said:

Thank God men cannot as yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the earth!

So does that make our skies “open” or just “wasted”?