Julian Moxon/BRUSSELS

THE EUROPEAN Commission (EC) wants to achieve a full open-skies air-transport agreement with the USA within five years, and will ask European transport ministers at the end of this month for a mandate to carry out negotiations.

In a 20-page draft proposal to be presented to the European Council of transport ministers on 19/20 June, EC Transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock will present his case for giving the EC the "exclusive competence" to forge block open-skies agreements with the USA and, subsequently, other non-EC states.

Kinnock also will propose that the existing open-skies bilaterals already signed between six EU members and the USA, be allowed to continue during the five-year transitional period to an EC-wide open-skies deal. Despite increasing criticism, however, he is still threatening the six (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden) with legal action at the European Court.

Philip Lowe, a senior aide to Kinnock, says that the open-skies agreements made by the six have "very severe" flaws, and stop short of the aim of creating a "really free and fair open market". He adds that, once the commitment is made to work towards an EU-wide approach, "a satisfactory arrangement for these interim arrangements could be worked out on an efficient, but transparent basis".

Lowe, speaking at a European Aviation Club symposium in Brussels on 7 June on EU/US aviation relations, says that the Commission is "...duty bound under European Law to carry out infringement proceedings". He adds that the proceedings relate to the fundamental issue of the competence of individual countries to negotiate such a bilateral agreement under EC law.

Kinnock recently attacked air-transport bilaterals as "the most serious obstacle to competition", adding that he favours the idea of negotiations between "two transport systems", rather than between country pairs. The full weight of the EU should be thrown behind open-skies talks, he says, to ensure that countries get the most favourable deals.

Support for an EC open-skies mandate comes from Lufthansa, whose vice-president for international relations, Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus, says that it would be a "step in the right direction", and should proceed "...if only to avoid another devastating stalemate in Europe". Existing bilaterals should be allowed to remain in force, however. He adds that the open-skies deals now being arranged "...do not adequately cover market requirements".

British Airways' government- affairs director David Holmes says, however, that giving the EC a mandate to negotiate traffic rights "...would be a recipe for confusion, stagnation and possible disaster".

US Ambassador to the EU, Stuart Eizenstat, points out that the latest open-skies deals do not, as Kinnock insists, threaten the European internal market. "Our existing bilaterals already provide extremely liberal access and fifth-freedom rights for US carriers...yet only 1% of intra-European flights exercise these rights," he says. He adds that the EC's obsession with cabotage rights is also misplaced, "...since US and European carriers are getting the access they need, through code-sharing and other alliance agreements".

Source: Flight International