United Airlines is losing faith that a UK-US open skies deal will ever materialise despite industry hopes that progress is at last being made.

Despairing of the lack of progress towards a new UK-US air transport pact, Michael Whitaker, United's vice-president international and regulatory affairs, claims that "there ultimately may never be a UK-US bilateral deal - we're certainly not getting any closer to one".

In Whitaker's opinion, the European Commission will overrule UK proposals and play an increasingly central role in the process. "I think that we're moving from a UK-US bilateral towards a multilateral US-European deal," he says. Whitaker hopes that a new EC transport commissioner, soon to be appointed, will be able to obtain a mandate from member states for multilateral talks.

Whitaker privately admits that he does not believe a phased-approach to open skies could work. The stumbling block to such a plan remains the slots issue, he says. British Airways and American Airlines delayed their plans for a full partnership last year after the EC demanded they free up 267 take-off and landing slots at Heathrow, which other carriers could then apply to use for new transatlantic services.

"If there was a resolution to the slots issue then I think this deal would be resolved very quickly - issues such as foreign ownership are not as important. But if BA is not prepared to relinquish slots at Heathrow, then there's not much chance of moving forward," says Whitaker.

Whitaker aired his views as UK and US officials prepared to meet in late April in a bid to revive open skies talks. Whitaker hopes that after years of deadlock, some form of open skies deal might be sealed in the third quarter. "The traditional wisdom is that not much gets done in the year of presidential elections [2000] and 1999 is therefore the key year," says Whitaker.

British Midland, which is working up plans for a return to the Atlantic, shares Whitaker's optimism for an imminent open skies deal. But chairman Sir Michael Bishop is pinning hopes on a UK-US bilateral. "I met the US transportation secretary two weeks ago and got the feeling that things are moving faster than expected. I'm optimistic that something will happen soon and this issue will resolve itself by mid-summer. UK-US open skies has got to be settled and it now looks like this settlement is coming sooner rather than later."

Bishop confirms that British Midland would not enter the US market without a strong alliance partner, and that United is a strong contender although "not the only contender", he adds. The UK carrier will begin a transatlantic codeshare agreement with United when an open skies deal is signed.

Source: Airline Business