Technical discussions start next month, but agreement on safety and competition policy not expected until 2006

The European Commission is poised to begin talks with the USA about transatlantic open skies, but it does not expect to seal a deal until 2006 when a wider agreement will be reached covering safety and aviation competition policy.

Technical negotiations between the EC's newly established air transport agreements team and the US Department of Transportation are due to start in Washington DC early next month and the EC has pencilled in a three-year deadline for any deal.

The EC is expected to select legal, technical and economic consultants to assist with the drafting of the framework and subsequent negotiations by September. These advisers will be retained on three-year contracts, the maximum permitted, but this is also understood to reflect an internal deadline.

"This is the first sign that things are happening, following the creation of the agreements unit last year," says Timothy Fenoulhet, from the EC's transport and energy directorate general.

The EC is understood to favour a longer negotiating period to implement an "open aviation area" between the European Union and the USA.

This wider bilateral agreement should govern market-access rules, such as routes, capacity and frequency restrictions; the setting of tariff rules; greater competition and the "maintenance of high standards of airline safety and aviation security", the EC says.

It says such an open aviation area would give EU and US airlines complete freedom to serve any set of airport pairs in the EU and USA.

Relaxing restrictions on ownership and control will also make it easier for EU and US airlines to enter into mergers and takeovers with each other, the EC says.

A report by US consultants, the Brattle Group, has estimated an increase of around 17 million extra passengers a year, if the two continents were to completely liberalise.

The EC was given a mandate to negotiate new open skies deals on behalf of EU members in June and had been expected to adopt a multi-stage approach, leading from a standard EU-US air services agreement.

The Netherlands' open skies deal, however, requires a notice period of 24 months and Dutch officials are unlikely to feel secure enough to rescind the existing deal until next year at the earliest, a senior source within the EC says.

Source: Flight International