By Mary Kirby in Philadelphia

Details of a possible relaxation to the USA's airline foreign ownership rules, reportedly hinted at during private sessions of the ongoing Open Skies talks with the European Union, should be publicised, an influential US congressman has urged.

James Oberstar, the Democratic ranking member (the second-highest committee member) of the House transportation committee has called on the country's Department of Transportation (DoT) to publicise the content of foreign airline ownership discussions with the EU. Talks last month on a proposed transatlantic Open Skies bilateral air services agreement were held between the USA's foreign ministry, the State Department, and the EU's executive branch, the European Commission.

In a letter to DoT secretary Norman Mineta dated yesterday, says it has been reported that State Department deputy assistant secretary John Byerly, while in private discussions with European officials, “made statements regarding the intent” of the US regulator’s 5 May supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking (SNPRM), which amended the department’s previous foreign ownership proposal.

These reports indicate that Byerly “took the position that new requirements announced in the SNPRM would not significantly limit foreign control of commercial decisions by United States airlines”, says Oberstar.

He adds that it is “essential” that interested parties filing comments on the SNPRM have access to “any such statements of intention or interpretation” as to adequately assess the impact of the proposal.

While Oberstar says Byerly is not bound by DoT rules which dictate full disclosure of these types of conversions, the legislator says the discussion with “individuals or groups regarding the DoT SNPRM would certainly fall within the intent of the rules”.

He notes that the DoT and the State Department “share responsibility for international aviation, and foreign control is a major issue in discussions with the EU regarding an Open Skies agreement”.

Therefore, European officials “would assume that Mr Byerly is speaking for the entire executive branch when he interprets the proposed rule. It is also likely that Mr Byerly would inform DoT of any feedback he gets from European officials in these meetings”.

Oberstar is asking that a detailed report of Byerly’s discussions with European officials regarding the SNPRM be placed in the current proposal’s docket.

The DoT’s original NPRM issued in November says the regulator will not alter the requirement that US citizens hold 75% of a domestic carrier’s voting stock, 51% of all stock, and hold senior executive positions including company president. However, it does propose to reduce the importance of domestic control over many economic decisions, such as choice of markets, type of aircraft equipment, marketing and pricing.

Although the revised proposal makes no drastic changes to the original, it does insert veto rights for board members with US citizenship, among other refinements.

Officials from the EU and USA had been hoping for ratification of an Open Skies agreement in June, but this was delayed after the DoT issued the SNPRM. Earlier this month, EU officials said they are now hopeful that a transatlantic Open Skies agreement will be in place for the Northern Hemisphere summer 2007 travel season.

Byerly declined to comment.

Source: Flight International