Air travel between the United States and the countries of the European Union will undergo a historic change on March 31 with the implementation of the Open Skies Treaty that was signed in Washington in April 2007.

Before Open Skies, flights between Europe and the United States were strictly regulated: if American Airlines or United Airlines or British Airways wanted to offer increased service across the Atlantic, lengthy negotiations would ensue between the airlines and the governments of hte nations affected. With the implementation of the treaty, airlines can basically fly between any American airport and any European airport without the need to negotiate treaties.

After signing the treaty, Mary Peters, the American Secretary of Transportation said, “With this agreement, the honeymoon in Paris, the business trip to Dublin, and family reunion in Naples will be cheaper, easier and within the reach of more Americans than ever before.”

What does this mean for the traveler? In the near run, it means increased flight opportunities across the Atlantic, an increase in destinations to fly to, maybe lower airfares, and realistically, an increase in delays as already crowded airports such as London Heathrow see even more air traffic.

Some of the upcoming changes include:

  • British Airways, a OneWorld partner with American Airlines, will launch a new airline called Open Skies which will offer non-stop service between Kennedy Airport in New York and Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. Currently, American Airlines AAdvantage members earn AAdvantage miles on all BA flights except those going across the Atlantic. Will that change with the creation of the new airline?
  • KLM will offer new service between Dallas and Amsterdam. Will American Airlines, with its giant hub at Dallas, try to compete with KLM on this route?
  • Air France will start a Los Angeles-London flight. Will American modify their LAX-LHR service in response?
  • Singapore Airlines will start non-stop service between Houston and Moscow. American Airlines will offer Chicago-Moscow service starting in June.
  • Delta will fly from Salt Lake City to Paris.
  • Four US airlines that previously could not fly to Heathrow will now offer service. Delta will fly from Atlanta and JFK. Continental will increase the number of flights from Houston and Newark. US Airways will start service from Philadelphia, and Northwest will offer service from Seattle, Detroit, and Minneapolis.
  • American Airlines had been flying to London/Gatwick from Dallas and Raleigh-Durham. Those flights will move to Heathrow.

Of all European airports, London Heathrow will see the largest increase in service, particularly as airlines establish a record of service leading up to the 2012 London Olympics. Last week, Queen Elizabeth opened Terminal 5 at Heathrow after 18 years of construction at a cost of 4.3 billion Pounds ($8.6 billion American. That is not $8 billion for a new airport, that is $8 billion just for a terminal building!). British Airways, the only airline at Terminal 5, has moved its operations from the other Heathrow terminals, helping to ease some of the congestion in those buildings and making gates available for other airlines. That is the good news.

The bad news is that Heathrow is getting all these additional flights but no increase in runways.

According to the British Civil Aviation Authority, 38 percent of all flights arriving or departing from Heathrow in 2007 were delayed. There is no reason to believe that situation will improve with the implementation of Open Skies.

Heathrow has a dreadful reputation among travelers. Users of the TripAdvisor website ranked Heathrow (along with Chicago O’Hare) as the world’s worst airport in 2007. Kris Kotarski, writing in the Calgary Herald, (March 22, 2008) described Heathrow this way, “Avoid London like the plague. Heathrow is the heart of darkness (especially Terminal 3 Arrivals) and ranks last on every seasoned traveler’s list.”

Heathrow was originally built to handle 45 million passengers a year: in 2007 it flew 68 million. Terminal 5 alone is expected to handle 30 million passengers, but the runways are still the same ones that were built for an airport expecting 45 million passengers, not 70 or 80 million.

Just as delays at DFW, O’Hare, and JFK have a ripple affect on cities throughout North America, we can expect the same thing on service throughout Europe. (See my articles about bad weather in Chicago affecting two of my mileage runs, one that did not come withing a thousand miles of Chicago, and one that did involve flights into O’Hare.

The offer of increased service to Europe is truly exciting. Mileage runners will look forward to seeing special bargains on trans-Atlantic flights. Whether the system can handle the additional service is another question