Sceptics could be forgiven for questioning the true 'open' nature ofthe new US open skies agreements with six Central American countries since carriers from two of the countries are prohibited from flying to the US.

Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama each signed open skies agreements with the US at a summit in San José, Costa Rica, in early May at which President Bill Clinton and new US Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater formalised the pacts.

The US authorities have not wasted time in their move to sign open skies agreements with the six Central American countries. The text of an open skies regime with Panama, which led to the forging of very similar agreements with the other five countries, was agreed only in March.

Rodney Slater declares that the deals 'promise great benefits for passengers and shippers in terms of better and more frequent service and lower fares in the future' and represent the opening of an important market for US citizens, businesses and airlines. In Slater's stated opinion, the deals represent 'an important step for Panama and the Central American region as these countries move to develop further their economic resources and create new tourist destinations'.

The US is not, however, keeping completely open house for its Central American neighbours. At least two of the countries involved, namely Honduras and Nicaragua, will find it particularly difficult to reciprocate in their open skies agreements in the near term. Under the US Federal Aviation Administration's international aviation safety assessment, the civil aviation authorities of these countries have been rated as Category III. This means that because of safety oversight concerns, carriers from those countries are not permitted to operate to the US, unless those airlines have their flights performed by an approved carrier, which usually means a US one.

The US is holding the door open to other central American countries and is seeking open skies agreements with Belize and the Dominican Republic - which are both Category III countries as well.

Clinton and Slater were apparently keen to sign up as many Central American countries as possible in a short timespan to provide the critical mass needed for open skies throughout the region. Driven by that mandate, some say there has not been much in the way of negotiation and that the US has simply replicated a standard open skies agreement and presented it to each of the countries in turn for them to sign.

Robert Papkin, of the Washington, DC law firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, says that the idea of stitching together all of these bilateral open skies into a true regional multilateral agreement is an interesting one. Papkin, however, remains somewhat at a loss 'to understand why Category III countries like Belize and Nicaragua would want such an agreement, and even less why the US would be anxious to sign up countries whose carriers cannot even fly to this country on their own'.

Still, progress towards open skies in Latin America now appears to be on something of a roll. Slater has made it clear that the US sees itself on a path that will lead to a series of agreements, not only in Central America, but throughout South America as well. Chile is high on the agenda and discussions are expected to continue between the two countries throughout the summer.


Source: Airline Business