The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a notice tentatively allowing Puerto Rico to give foreign airlines more flexibility with passengers and cargo.
What will change under the new rules?
Non-U.S. airlines will be able to transfer freight and passengers from one of their own to other airplanes belonging to the same carrier. They will be allowed to make a “change of gauge” — that is, planning flights with a single flight number that involve moving passengers and freight from one airplane to another. This is usually done when the second leg of the flight requires a larger or smaller aircraft than the first.
They will also be able to transfer people or freight to and from other airplanes, whether foreign or U.S. based, in airports in Puerto Rico. They will be able to mix foreign and U.S.airlines in doing so. For example, they will be able to pick up cargo from a U.S. airline and carry it along with their own, foreign-sourced cargo, to another U.S. port.
Passengers will be able to transfer from an American airline to a foreign airline in Puerto Rico, and continue their travels to another city in the United States. People will also be able to switch from one foreign plane to another. Cargo can also be warehoused by foreign airlines in Puerto Rico, under the new rules.
Essentially, the change in the law will allow foreign airplanes in Puerto Rico to take advantage of Puerto Rico’s easy access to the United States, Europe, and South America. This should encourage both increased tourism and greater business use of Puerto Rico’s airports.
Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (R-PR), who has been working for this outcome since at least 2017, says that the new rules “will help boost the economic development of the island.”
The change of rules puts Puerto Rico in the same position as Alaska and Hawaii, which have the same exemptions.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) explained its decision by saying that the new rules “could attract new or additional foreign air carrier services to Puerto Rico airports, which could provide benefits to Puerto Rico, its economy and the traveling public.”
The DOT continued, “In its request, Puerto Rico provided specific evidence of the negative impact that its economy has suffered after Hurricane Maria and for other reasons. None of the opposing parties persuasively challenges those factors in the registry, and we consider this factor to be convincing in favor of Puerto Rico.”
Both pilots and flight attendants had, through their labor organizations, argued against the bill. They expressed concern that workers’ rights might not be upheld by foreign airlines. The Department of Transportation disagreed.
“We believe that this condition will bring about the desired benefits for Puerto Rico without compromising our ability to protect the full range of important U.S. aviation interests or hampering U.S. negotiating ability,” they wrote.
Public comments are open through March 11, 2020, but the DOT has said that they will make the change in regulations for two years, leaving open the possibility of adjustments during that time.
Support from the private sector
Rep. Gonzalez-Colon thanked the private sector for supporting her bill and, by extension, the new regulatory proposal. A number of private organizations, from the United Retailers Association of Puerto Rico to the Medical Devices Cluster of Puerto Rico Techno-Economic Corridor (PRTEC), wrote letters in support of the air cargo bill.
A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will be required within two years of the bill becoming law.