Kevin O'Toole/LONDON

BELGIUM AND the USA met on 28 February to finalise the latest transatlantic open-skies agreement, so dealing another blow to European attempts to develop a common response to the US bilaterals offensive.

A Belgium deal would also allow Delta Airlines, Sabena and Swissair to create the most far-reaching alliance yet formed across the Atlantic.

Further open-skies talks are scheduled to take place with Austria, Iceland and Luxembourg early in March and with Finland by the end of the month. No date has yet been set for joint Scandinavian talks with Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

If the deals are signed as scheduled, it will mark a significant victory for the USA in its strategy of opening up Europe's air market through small open-skies deals.

The European Commission (EC) has attempted to win powers to negotiate collectively on behalf of the European Union (EU), but efforts have been opposed by larger member states and airlines wary of handing powers to Brussels.

EU transport ministers are due to review the issue again on 14 March, but may now be faced with having to carry out a damage-limitation exercise. In a further development, UK negotiators are understood to have traveled to Washington on 21 February to re-open stalled talks on a new UK-US bilateral.

British Airways Chairman Sir Colin Marshall has restated his opposition to collective EU bargaining, but supports the aim of "full open-skies arrangements" with the USA and other trading blocs, based on a free market.

The Netherlands became the first to sign an open-skies agreement with the USA in 1993, so freeing KLM and Northwest Airlines effectively to operate like a single airline across the Atlantic.

A fresh drive by the US Department of Transport to open up Europe has already resulted in the signing of a Swiss deal in mid-February. Signing up Belgium could complete the picture, however, given Sabena's alliance talks with Swissair and its growing code-sharing relationship with Delta.

Source: Flight International