Air treaty rests on landing slots talks

UNITED STATES airlines are pinning their hopes on a conference at Gatwick airport next week - on allocating airline landing slots - to break the deadlock over a new US-UK agreement for free trade in the skies across the Atlantic.

Talks between the two governments last week to kick start the negotiations ended with no agreement on Friday, and no date was fixed for the negotiations to resume. It was the first time the two sides had met since the US walked out of negotiations last October.

During last week's session the US made it clear that no open skies deal could be contemplated until Continental and US Airways received the slots they wanted at the south London airport for their flights from Cleveland and Charlotte respectively.

US aviation officials in London last week met UK officials and Gatwick airport slot co-ordinators.

Resolving slot disputes is a private sector matter and BA or other airlines with slots have to be willing to trade. The US has made the conclusion of an open skies accord a precondition for its approval of the plan to ally British Airways and American Airlines. The two have since said they want to phase in the accord over four to five years due to the economic downturn and what they see as harsh conditions imposed by Brussels.

"Next week's slot conference in London will be the litmus test of UK intentions," said a US Airways statement after last week's negotiations. BA said it was unaware of next week's conference, which will be held at Gatwick on Wednesday and is organised by a private company called Airport Co-ordination. But BA reiterated its commitment to an open skies accord.

"We still believe its vitally important for the two sides to resume talking and negotiate a new agreement as we have long been an exponent of a new open skies air services agreement. We're encouraged that the door is still open for further discussions," said a spokesman for the airline.

A timetable for a phased open skies agreement was not discussed at the talks, according to a US official. However, the Government told the US it wanted the abolition of rules prohibiting foreign airlines from offering domestic flights in the US. This is of particular importance to Richard Branson's Virgin Airlines, which wants to start a domestic US airline.

Whitehall also wants rules that require US civil servants to fly with American carriers to be scrapped, but the US is believed to have made it clear it was not prepared to move on this issue.

Jesse Helms is among 11 US senators to have taken up the Gatwick issue. The UK Government stressed last week that under EU law airport slots had to be allocated independently of government.

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