Talks on a new US-UK liberalised aviation bilateral agreement are due to resume at the start of July, but the hosts in Washington DC remain cautious about the likely outcome of this latest round.

Talks were set to restart in mid-June but were cancelled by the UK Government, which said it needed a little more time to prepare its negotiating position. The US team suspect this was to give partners British Airways and American Airlines time to finalise their discussions with the UK competition authorities that must pronounce on the competitive implications of their alliance.

The latest delay, in a saga that has gone on for years, especially irked one US State Department official, who complained: "When it comes to aviation talks, the UK never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Although US officials continue to be cautious about the outcome of this year's talks, the UK believes an agreement setting out an acceptable, phased timetable for "open skies" between the two nations is achievable this year. "I'm an eternal optimist," says a British Embassy official in Washington. "We're very determined that an agreement can be worked out in several more rounds."

BA expects progress, and possibly resolution, in the next three months. "We're perennially optimistic - with an emphasis on the word perennially," says one official. He expects the latest talks at least to launch a process which will lead to a new bilateral and proceed with an application for immunity for the American-BA alliance. "I think all concerned would like to get it resolved by the end of the summer. I don't think it will drag on," he adds.

The impetus for the renewed talks came from UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and US Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who met in the spring in an attempt to restart the talks.

Sir Michael Bishop, chairman of transatlantic hopeful British Midland, visited Washington in June to push for resumption of serious US-UK negotiations. He told the International Aviation Club that it cannot be in the public interest that "important aero-political issues have effectively been frozen" for nearly three years while American and BA manoeuvre to gain advantage.

He also attacked the notion that slot availability at London Heathrow posed insurmountable difficulties to implementing a liberalised agreement. European Union allocation has allowed over 50 new entrant airlines to gain access to Heathrow since 1992, with some amassing "a significant slot portfolio". Bishop contends: "The issue of slots is entirely disconnected with the general principles of open skies and should remain so."

Bishop also urges the USA to take a "bold and courageous step forward" in joining the UK in approving BM's request for an exemption to start transatlantic services. He argues that such action would "send a strong signal that the US Government means business in opening up UK-US transatlantic routes".

Other carriers, however, are less than happy with Prescott's apparent change of heart and new willingness to pursue open skies. Virgin Atlantic, a bitter opponent to an immunised AA-BA alliance, believes it will have to reactivate its campaign to alert politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to the dangers of such an alliance.

Source: Airline Business