EU, US prepare for next round of second-stage open skies talks

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European Union (EU) and US negotiators this spring expect to meet again for second-stage open skies negotiations in hopes of ironing out a number of thorny issues, including foreign ownership of US airlines.

The first round of second-stage negotiations was held in May 2008 in Slovenia, and a second round took place in September 2008 in Washington DC.

"We envision a third round later in the spring of this year, but dates have not been fixed," says John Byerly, US deputy assistant secretary of state for transportation affairs and the country's chief negotiator on open skies.

The meeting will be the first time both sides come together during a US President Barack Obama-led administration, and will take place about one year after phase one of open skies took effect.

From a broad perspective, Byerly believes further liberalization of aviation accords will continue to be a focus for the US moving forward. "The United States has pursued an open skies policy across three Presidential Administrations - under the first President Bush, President Clinton, and President George W Bush - with strong and consistent support from both parties in the US Congress and from US airline, labour, and airport stakeholders," he says.

"Today, we have open skies agreements in place with over ninety countries. No one, to my knowledge, has called for a change of course in America's commitment to Open Skies and the vigorous, free, and fair competition in international aviation markets that it encourages."

More specific to the EU-US talks, Byerly says several US proposals are already on the agenda. The US has proposed to amend the first-stage agreement "to secure for US all-cargo airlines the same full seventh freedom traffic rights that are today enjoyed by European Community carriers".

Additionally, the US has raised concerns about the proliferation of night flight restrictions at EU airports and expressed interest in including provisions in a second-stage agreement that will ensure full and effective implementation of the "balanced approach" to airport noise management endorsed by consensus in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), says Byerly.

As a third topic, the US "has indicated its interest in discussing the complex issues that surround cross-border investment in airlines".

The EU, meanwhile, is looking for an easing of US ownership and control restrictions. Daniel Calleja, director of the European Commission's air transport directorate and Europe's lead open skies negotiator, is optimistic that progress will be made on reaching a second-stage deal over the coming year.

"We have an historic first-stage agreement and we would like in 2009, or if necessary in 2010, to complete the second stage," Calleja recently told ATI sister publication Airline Business, highlighting the "deadline" set in phase one.

This deadline states that if no second-stage agreement can be reached by 2010, either side has the right to withdraw the traffic rights secured under phase one.

But Byerly insists the US is not negotiating because it has a deadline. "The US and EU can accomplish so much more if we work together to explore issues and focus on success rather than spinning wheels with dire predictions of what will happen if one side or the other is at some future point not satisfied with the pace of progress."

He warns that it would be "deeply harmful" to the interests of airlines, airports, workers, cities, and economies on both sides of the Atlantic "to threaten the fundamental framework for transatlantic aviation established by the US-EU air transport agreement".

Phase one open skies has already yielded "impressive results" says Byerly, pointing to "major market openings in Ireland, at London Heathrow and in airline codesharing arrangements".

The beneficiaries, he says, are "consumers, shippers, workers, and communities on both sides of the Atlantic".

Additionally, the joint committee of EU and US representatives - which was created by the first-stage agreement and includes industry stakeholders - is "off to a strong start in facilitating transatlantic cooperation on regulatory matters".