Doubts in Congress will not scupper open skies

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By Darren Shannon in Washington DC & Kerry Ezard in London

US opposition to the tentative open skies accord between the European Union and the USA will not stop the US Department of Transportation initiating the deal if it is approved by European transport ministers.

Meanwhile, European Commission negotiators have secured a "get-out" clause, which would allow it to suspend its side of the deal if no second-stage agreement can be reached by mid-2010.

The strongest indication yet that the US Congress will not scupper the deal came last week in a letter from leading lawmakers that voiced concern about the foreign ownership provisions in a deal brokered on 2 March. Despite these objections, the letter also noted that the legislature would only become involved after the air accord has been implemented.

In the letter to DoT secretary Mary Peters, three leading Congressmen say they disapprove of the ambiguity of the ownership conditions that do not change current US policy on foreign control of domestic carriers, but allow for the regulator to relax the restrictions on a case-by-case basis.

The letter was signed by House transportation and infrastructure committee chairman James Oberstar, aviation subcommittee chairman Jerry Costello and Frank LoBiondo - leading figures in last year's successful opposition to the DoT's plan to revise its foreign ownership rules.

"We have reviewed the proposed open skies agreement between the United States and the European Union and are concerned that it may lead to a change in US law and policy to permit greater foreign control of US airlines," says the three legislators.

However, they note: "If the agreement becomes final, we will be carefully reviewing any subsequent DoT decisions made in cases involving foreign control. If these decisions allow greater foreign control, we will consider legislation to require continuation of existing law and policy."

Meanwhile, in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week, EC vice-president Jacques Barrot said he had obtained a mechanism to ensure that the open skies agreement proceeds to the second stage, adding that the negotiations with the USA will begin in January 2008.

"If we don't have a second stage agreement by mid-2010, we can suspend our side of the agreement," says Barrot, adding he is "personally convinced" that US ownership and control issues can eventually be resolved.

EU transport ministers will discuss the draft agreement during a meeting scheduled for 22 March. If approved, the first stage would come into effect on 28 October.