The latest in the seemingly unending round of open skies talks between the USA and UK in Washington on 4-5 January failed to produce the widely predicted "mini deal" over access to London Heathrow. But most observers still expect some kind of interim compromise to emerge when talks resume at the start of February.

The deal is expected to make British Midland (BM) the third UK carrier to the USA in return for opening Heathrow to two further US carriers. Under Bermuda II, only United and American can serve the UK hub, while British Airways and Virgin fly in the opposite direction. It is not clear if BA would be forced to give up any Heathrow slots or BM may do so as the price for a deal.

As the January talks opened, Northwest Airlines staked its claim to be one of the new US carriers, with an application to the US Department of Transportation (DoT) for "sufficient frequencies" at Heathrow to start a viable service to its Detroit and Minneapolis/St Paul hubs. Northwest flies to London Gatwick from both cities.

While a deal over Heathrow would reduce the pressure on the stalled talks, it would be bad news for the UK's cargo airlines. The British Cargo Airline Alliance (BCAA), which groups Air Foyle, Atlantic Airlines, Channel Express and HeavyLift Cargo, is pushing not only for cabotage rights in the USA comparable to those already enjoyed by US carriers under some existing open skies deals within Europe, but also for an end to the US ban on wet-leasing foreign aircraft.

While not directly affecting cargo, a mini deal over Heathrow could push cargo to the back burner. "The more we give the USA, the less likely they are to change their open skies template," says Steve Guynan, secretary of the BCAA, gloomily.

The assumption is that with their hands on the big prize - Heathrow - the DoT would lose interest in giving tricky ground on cargo.

Source: Airline Business