Stop Tiptoeing Around Russia
It Is Time to End Washington’s Decades of Deference to Moscow
SYSTEMS of land transport operate largely within the boundaries of single countries; when land transport becomes international it is subject to easy control at frontiers. Ships ply across sea frontiers, and control can be exercised without difficulty at foreign ports. But the airplane flies over national boundaries and from one country into the heart of another. Thus the development of the skyways of the world has created a new international problem, that of the freedom of the air.
The problem is complicated by other factors. The more industrially advanced countries reaped a rich reward from being first in the field with adequate systems of land and sea transport. Other nations, seeing how the opening of shipping lines and railways stimulated trade in the past, and fearing to be left behind again in an important economic development, are anxious to open up foreign trade routes under their own flag in the new field of the air. In addition, nations have in general desired to increase their power by creating a reserve of civil pilots and commercial aircraft which might be useful in wartime.
In discussions of these matters, too little attention often is paid to the basic fact about civil aviation -- namely that it exists to give the traveller and the sender of goods a better service than other transport facilities can give -- service which is quicker, or more advantageous in other ways, and which is not disproportionately expensive. The fundamental question thus is: Can facilities for travel and the transport of goods by air be provided on an ordinary business basis?
Air transport, we must emphasize again, is essentially international in character. This is particularly so in the case of the British Empire, with its widely scattered dominions. Obviously, an enterprise affecting the interests of various nations must be regulated; and equally plainly, regulations which were too severe would stifle its development. What degree of regulation is necessary and how can it best be achieved? Three aspects of the problem need consideration. The first is technical, the second commercial, the third political.
First, there must be safety for those who fly and for those over whom aircraft are flown.
Prior to the war, technical standards of airworthiness were laid down under the International Air Convention or the Pan American Convention. Government departments usually determined and enforced national standards and worked out international agreements. But aircraft operators, underwriters and constructors took an even more immediate interest in safeguarding those who travelled by air. An analogous case had been the development of rules of safety at sea. The insurance regulations governing the commercial operation of national and international marine transport grew out of meetings in Edward Lloyd's Coffee House, where interested parties gathered to underwrite the risks of voyages. From this beginning came Lloyd's Register of Shipping, with constituent representatives of shipowners, underwriters, merchants and shipbuilders, charged with the surveying and classifying of ships. Following this marine precedent, there was set up in Great Britain in April 1927 an Air Registration Board, composed in equal number of representatives of aircraft operators, underwriters and constructors, and of the public. The Air Ministry of the United Kingdom delegated to this Board the work of recommending the issue and renewal of Certificates of Airworthiness for the initial prototypes of aircraft and subsequent similar types. Its duty is simply to determine and enforce standards of normal airworthiness, with such extensions thereof as may be necessary to meet specified abnormal conditions, and to license personnel as fit and proper persons for their work. This form of control leaves military considerations completely out of account.
After the war, an international agreement on technical standards will be necessary. I think the best way of making sure that considerations of adaptability to military use do not enter into civil design is to have those agreements negotiated by representatives of commercial interests. The agreements could be reached in conferences patterned after the Havana Convention or the prewar meetings of the International Commission for Air Navigation, but attended by representatives of commercial interests rather than by government spokesmen.
Second, traffic on air routes must be regulated so that there is adequate but not ruinous competition. There must be some control, by licensing or otherwise, nationally and internationally, to prevent facilities from being created in excess of the actual or potential demand.
Before the war, Great Britain did not exercise as close control over the activities of its airline companies as did the United States. Any company which sought to enter the business and run the financial risks involved could do so, whether or not other services were operating on the same routes, provided its aircraft complied with the British requirements for airworthiness and the crews held certificates of competence. Official recognition was required only if government contracts or subsidies were sought. When the war ends, British shipping companies or any other business concerns will be free under the present law to organize domestic or foreign airlines, so long as they satisfy airworthiness requirements and (in the case of foreign routes) receive permission from the countries they propose to serve. If this freedom is not restricted it may lead to fierce competition, with evil repercussions. And similar trouble will arise internationally if, inspired by reasons of prestige rather than trade, countries sanction air services in areas which are already well provided with them. Some overriding control is necessary, exercised without fear or favor to any nation.
It might be exercised by an International Licensing Board, on the model of the American Civil Aeronautics Board or the prewar British Air Transport Licensing Authority, though neither of these, of course, possesses the powers which would have to be vested in an international authority. The creation of such a Board would be rather revolutionary, for its powers would necessarily extend to both the western and the eastern hemispheres. Probably it would have to be created by government action and should be composed of official or semi-official representatives. The task of framing the terms of reference for such an international board and of considering how its membership should be composed might well be undertaken now.
An alternative form of traffic control would be one analogous to the "conference" in the shipping world, of which the North Atlantic Shipping Conference is a fair example. This organization exists to bring about agreement on the classification of ships with regard to rates charged and on other matters connected with day-to-day marine transportation. A similar air conference organization might be created in the course of normal commercial procedure, open to all those desiring to participate. Although some nations may wish to maintain airlines chiefly for prestige purposes, the fact remains that commercial and financial considerations are the most powerful of all. No company is likely to put large sums of money into an air fleet unless there is some prospect of adequate return on the investment. There is a good argument that healthy and harmonious international relationships in the field of civil aviation will be best achieved not by setting up a supra-national authority, with all its complicated political implications, but by allowing transport companies to see that reasonable though not ruinous competition prevails through the ordinary conference method.
The third and primarily political aspect of the problem centers about what is called the freedom of the air. This freedom might be said to have four gradations: (1) The right to fly over a country without landing. (2) The right to land and refuel, but not to deliver or pick up passengers, goods or mails from or for another country. (3) The right to land, and to deliver and pick up passengers from and for other countries. (4) The right to land, and to deliver and pick up passengers, goods and mails. This last classification is tantamount to a "free sky."
I doubt that any of these gradations of freedom will generally be granted. Nations -- particularly small ones -- are not likely to surrender the bargaining power derived from the assumption that they control the air space above their territories. Unless the leading Allied Powers agree among themselves on a clear definition of freedom of the air and insist that it be universally recognized, I am afraid that in the immediate postwar years we shall return to the old system under which each nation bargained for itself as best it could. To some extent the arrangements will be made between company and company, or between company and nation.
As the range of aircraft increases, the bargaining power of nations lying on main-line routes may be reduced. But even after the ground services supplied by these nations are no longer needed, they probably will invoke the danger of espionage as an excuse for demanding special concessions from the companies which wish to operate over their territories. Actually, the danger of espionage by commercial aircraft is not great. What is much more important is to take careful precautions against the use of national airlines to cloak the creation of aggressive military power.
The chief safeguard against the development of a military air force in civil guise lies in giving publicity to the operations of air transport companies. This might be achieved by an independent audit of their accounts, revealing how revenues are being expended and to what extent subsidy or other state aid is granted. In a statement of policy submitted to the Prime Minister last June, the Society of British Aircraft Constructors proposed that the right to operate airlines should be restricted to those companies which submitted their books to full audit and agreed to the regular and frequent publication of the results. To enforce a similar rule, or any others which might be agreed upon, some supervisory authority must be established. All countries operating air transport should be represented on it, and if any of them refused to abide by its rules it should have the power to ground the planes of those countries if they landed outside their own borders. The feasibility of imposing economic sanctions might also be considered in this connection.
Germany, of course, will be a special problem. We shall have to go much further than we did last time, when we merely limited the size of her civil aircraft and forbade her to possess a military air force. All the Axis nations must be deprived of the right to design and manufacture aircraft of any kind and to operate air services. It would probably be unwise to denude Germany of commercial air services; yet it would be improper to give any one country a monopoly on supplying her with them. The most practical solution would be to inaugurate a system of air routes to which all nations having trade relations with Germany would have access. The planning of the routes and services would, of course, come within the province of the international control body, which would have to take care to avoid creating "zones of influence." An essential part of the plan would be close supervision on the ground: the entire ground organization should be placed in the hands of the Allied nations. This would amount, in effect, to a European experiment in establishing freedom of the air. Later it might be extended. In any event, the scheme would provide an incentive for the other nations to make sure that Germany did not rebuild her air fleet during the specified period, say 20 years. The defect in the 1919 scheme was the absence of an inducement to constant vigilance by the Allies.
Is there any reason why those who travel by airplane or send goods by air should have part of the cost paid out of the public purse? Presumably time is money, and if it is worth while for travellers and shippers to use an airplane they should pay an adequate price for what they get.
There are unmistakable signs that air transportation is on the way to becoming self-supporting. Better aircraft, better ground facilities, improved airports and a more closely spun network of air routes will bring down the cost to the user, and will so shorten air passages that the extra cost of using air facilities will become an investment and not an extravagance. For the time being, the state can help greatly by providing ground service, including airports, hangars, radio, meteorological and similar services, at nominal fees, or even free. The objective, however, is for the airlines to operate at a profit on a sound business basis, without depending on revenue from the state beyond the reasonable rewards for services rendered, e.g. for the carriage of mails. Governments can help in that direction by closely scrutinizing the operations of civil airlines as revealed in their audits, and by making the issuance of all operating licenses contingent upon a steady decrease in the subsidy required, thus throwing the responsibility for sound business operation upon the airlines and their customers.
In certain cases the state will be the owner and operator of the airlines. Most countries, however, will prefer to leave the management of their air services in the hands of private companies or government-supported corporations. There is no proof as yet that the state can run air services better than private enterprise can. Certainly, the period in which a young industry is expanding is not the time for a government monopoly. When an industry is growing it needs the stimulus of alert, flexible, young minds; it needs vision, courage and drive. These qualities are not found in government offices, which inevitably are cautious and tend to postpone action. Air transportation should remain primarily the responsibility of private business, with the state playing the rôle of a stern but benevolent godfather.
The claim of the United States to a prescriptive operating right in the air bases built abroad by American labor and materials is a source of some misunderstanding at the moment. The British view is that it is difficult to distinguish the part of a nation's war effort which goes into the making of an air base from the parts which go into the making of an aircraft carrier or the making of a cap for a six-inch shell. All these items have a common purpose: to win the war. We do not expect to gain material assets from the war which we can turn to our advantage in the peace. (We think of the ability to remain free as a sufficient gain. Americans may not altogether realize how near we came to enslavement.) Perhaps the difficulty over the air bases springs from a suspicion in American minds that the eastern half of the world is anxious to shut out the air services of the western half. That, of course, is unfounded. No such exclusion is imaginable unless Americans wished to exclude commercial planes coming from our side of the Atlantic. That seems to me a no less ridiculous suspicion. Undoubtedly, the use of those bases which America built outside her own boundaries will be available to her if she wants them. All that is necessary is that an hour or two be spent in friendly discussion during the transition period in order to arrange the matter.
What is the place of Great Britain and the Empire in the larger schemes of world air transportation? In my opinion much of the future prosperity of the world will depend upon the degree of coöperation -- or, to use the fashionable expression, integration -- that can be attained by the countries comprising the British Commonwealth of Nations.
The creation of the Empire air routes was principally the work of Great Britain, though each of the Empire countries which they served contributed its quota -- chiefly in money -- toward paying the operating costs. Attempts to link the British Isles and the scattered territories of Egypt, South Africa, India and Australasia suffered great vicissitudes at first. The handicaps imposed by the refusal of European nations to accept the principle of free passage for civil aircraft was not surmounted till the long-range Empire flying-boats came into use. Today, it is possible -- though not in all cases economically sound -- to operate Empire routes without seeking the permission of a single foreign country. This fact gives the British Commonwealth much greater bargaining power than formerly, and provides a powerful inducement to all its member nations to come together to complete the task of creating an efficient air transport service. In this I see nothing but good.
A suggestion that an Empire Air Force be built up was made some years ago. It was not wholly welcomed then, but the war brought the idea to fruition a few months after hostilities began. Squadrons of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the South African Air Force, the Indian Air Force and the Rhodesian Air Force have fought side by side in what can only be described as a single Air Force. Not only have squadrons of the various Air Forces worked together; the personnel of different Forces have made up the crews of individual planes. That closeness of coöperation is reflected in the new name given to the R. A. F.'s old Central Flying School -- today it is called the Empire Central Flying School.
Great Britain is now using airliners manufactured in other countries, partly because her prewar civil aviation policy prevented her from equipping herself adequately, but even more because she put all her wartime effort into the building of war planes. Practically no orders had been placed for British transport aircraft as late as the end of last year. The Spitfire, Mosquito, Lancaster and Halifax of today, like other types of British fighters and bombers in the past, have proved that the British aircraft industry can meet the most exacting specifications and more often than not throw in a bonus. The industry is confident that it can produce civil air transports comparable in performance to its notable warplanes. That confidence is doubtless shared by the British dominions and colonies, and will probably induce them to wait to see the British air transports which are now being designed before they commit themselves to buying or building other types.
Before the war, Great Britain supplied most of the aircraft used in her overseas possessions and the dominions. Several of these countries now are in a position to build planes of the largest size, and those with manufacturing facilities limited to the smaller types of airframe and engine will doubtless enlarge their scope to embrace all classes of aircraft. The war has given them all a new conception of their industrial potentialities and a new belief in their skill. In other words, the foundations have been laid for an Empire Air Force and an air transport industry capable of enormous development. Fostered along the proper lines, such a force will be an invaluable asset to each member of the Commonwealth and a common bulwark against any nation that, like Nazi Germany, aspired to world dominion. A unification of effort will work to the disadvantage of no one and to the gain of all.
Such a grouping of skill and resources would not mean that the Empire intended to trade only within itself. It would mean exactly the reverse. Coordination within the Empire is needed to obtain the greatest possible measure of airborne trade in every market that can be reached by air, and to bring into existence the greatest number of air services compatible with the amount of trade available. Whether or not we can achieve the ideal degree of Empire coördination, there is a growing conviction in Great Britain that the "chosen instrument" policy (i.e. that in which the government chooses one company to carry the national flag in the air) is not suitable to the conditions that will prevail when the business of air transportation begins its inevitable expansion. The tasks to be undertaken will be too many and too large for a single concern to discharge. One great unwieldy organization would lack the flexibility necessary to meet changing conditions. It would inevitably insist upon so rigid a standardization that orders for aircraft would be unequally distributed within the industry and many aircraft designers would be deprived completely of opportunities to prove their skill. To my mind, the case against monopoly in British overseas air transport services is overwhelming, and no time should be lost in giving official approval and support to sound alternative schemes.
At the end of the last war, the builder of military planes was eager to manufacture civil aircraft; but first air routes had to be opened and the industry organized. My belief in the future of air transport led me to become an airline operator at that time. Soon thereafter, however, civil aviation ceased to be a commercial enterprise and became a subsidized instrument of nationalistic rivalries. I mention my personal encounter with that unforeseen development as my excuse for preferring, in this article, to offer my opinion as to how the world should run its air transport services rather than to predict what will actually occur.
Every sign points to a rapid growth of travel and transport by airplane when this war is over. Airlines are ready with ambitious projects for expansion. Shipping and other transport interests are as eager to come into the field as they once were to keep out. I should like to suggest that two facts in particular ought to be kept in mind as we enter this new era. It should be remembered, first, that each aircraft, by reason of its high speed, can carry a large number of passengers in a given period, and therefore that the expansion of air routes will not produce a proportionate increase in the number of airplanes needed. Second, it must be remembered that no great profits will be made in the pioneer years of this era. To hope that the public purse could be enriched by the nationalization of the aircraft industry would be to pursue an expensive delusion.