Individual deals now give US airlines an unfair advantaage

The European Commission (EC) is expected to strip European Union (EU) member states of the power to negotiate bilateral aviation treaties with non-EU states, after the European Court of Justice's advocate general issued a statement favouring the Commission's case that such agreements contravene EU law.

Following the statement, the court said that no date for a final ruling on the case had been set, but the EC anticipates a decision within six months. The Court has followed the advocate general's opinion in 80% of cases in the past, and there is no appeal from its decision.

In what could become the biggest shake-up in airline regulating history, the Commission, supported by the advocate general, argues that bilateral agreements break European law by failing to treat all European carriers equally. For example, the German-US agreement excludes non-German EU carriers from Berlin's bilateral aviation treaty with Washington.

The result of the USA being able to make individual treaties, says the EC, is that US airlines can fly from any point in the USA to anywhere in the EU where an open skies deal has been struck, but EU airlines may fly only from their registered home nation to the USA, giving US airlines an unfair advantage.

The Commission challenged eight countries' bilateral agreements with the USA, including Germany and the UK, in the original case in 1998. The Commission has also filed similar cases against France, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal, although these suits have not yet reached the Court.

The Court's decision would effectively freeze the status quo - no further bilaterals could be signed. Meanwhile the Commission would start talks with the USA on a Europe-wide deal. These talks, many believe, could take up to 10 years. Bilateral negotiations with other countries would also be affected.

Meanwhile, the existing network of bilaterals would be vulnerable to legal challenge. The Commission suggests that, for example, British Airways would have a good chance of suing Lufthansa to obtain equal landing rights at Frankfurt - the resulting outbreak of lawsuits across Europe, it says, would certainly be "a difficult situation".

Source: Flight International