Julian Moxon/PARIS

EUROPEAN TRANSPORT ministers will be asked to toe the line on a common "open-skies" policy for the European Union in a crucial meeting to be held in Brussels on 13-14 March.

The matter has moved to the top of the agenda as the USA continues open-skies talks with individual European Union (EU) countries.

Nine states are now involved, three of which are not EU members (Iceland, Switzerland and Norway). Of the remaining six (Belgium, Austria, Luxembourg, Austria, Finland and Sweden), Belgium and Austria have already concluded preliminary deals with the USA.

The US action has left the EC in disarray. EU transport commissioner Neil Kinnock has asked all EU countries to refrain from signing any further deals.

"If US airlines fully exploit their rights under these accords, they could connect their long-range flights with all EU internal routes," he says.

A senior European Commission (EC) source admits that the EC is "still working" on a third-country package under which member states could negotiate open-skies rights. "We'll have something ready soon," he says. French transport minister Bernard Bosson appears to be ready for some sort of compromise, under which the EC will define a basis for negotiations on global third-country relations.

Bosson's opposite number in Belgium, Elio di Rupo, says however, that the EC has "...come manifestly too late" to make any difference. Belgium has already signed an accord with the USA (Flight International, 1-7 March), which, if ratified by the Government, would give US carriers immediate access to Belgium's airports.

This would allow Sabena and its likely partner, Swissair, to develop its relationship with Delta Airlines. The Netherlands has already signed an open-skies deal with the USA.

Frederick Sorensen, an air- policy transport director of the EC's aviation division, hit out at the individual bilateral talks.

"These deals are worrying for all of us, because ...they're actually causing changes to the entire European air-transport system. It's not how one should conduct US-European air transport] relations."

Sorensen says that Delta, for example, will be able to fly to Frankfurt, as it does now, then code-share with Sabena, Swissair, SAS and Austrian to gain access to the European route system. "So they have a God-given opportunity to take advantage of liberalisation of the internal market without having to observe its rules, which protect the rights of European carriers, on such things as leasing, pricing, and anti-competitive behaviour."

Source: Flight International