The final stage of European air-transport liberalisation came into effect on 1 April, to the accompaniment of predictions that airlines will be unlikely to take full advantage of the increased market access contained within the legislation.

"In most important respects, the European market has been fully liberalised since 1993," says John Balfour of the London-based Frere Chomley Bischoff law firm. He points out that, while the extra "freedom" contained in the final liberalisation package allows carriers to operate domestic services within another European Union (EU) member state, few are likely to see any commercial benefit in doing so.

The Mercer consultancy group points out, however, that the package leaves Europe with a competitive environment "-which is more open than that of the USA".

Under the "consecutive cabotage" rule, which has been in effect for four years, airlines have been free to operate into and out of an intermediate EU state on the way to the final destination - but on condition that only 50% of the final passenger count originates in that state.

Balfour notes that airlines have done little with existing cabotage freedoms and that many have actually withdrawn from such routes given the difficulties of fighting in a foreign market which is already controlled by local carriers.

He cautions that freedom is "meaningless" until airport slot- allocation problems are resolved, with the European Commission on the verge of releasing its long-awaited and potentially controversial proposals on the issue.

Source: Flight International