EC seeks control of air route deals

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN Commission is seeking the right to negotiate air route deals with non-Community countries, arguing that the increasing tendency of EC member states to negotiate unilateral arrangements undermines the aims of the single market.

Karel Van Miert, the Belgian commissioner responsible for transport, said he had been aghast to learn that Sabena, the Belgian airline, was negotiating an 'open-skies' deal with the US. The Netherlands already operates such an arrangement and France and Germany are pursuing similar talks.

'I think there is a case for saying that member states should at least brief each other on what they are trying to do and not take decisions behind each other's back,' Mr Van Miert said.

The Commission's concern is that, while US carriers are not restricted to transatlantic routes and operate 19 routes within the Community, the same rights are not available to EC carriers.

It is impossible for a European carrier to fly from London to Dallas via New York, picking up US passengers en route. Where the Americans operate 139 routes between the US and EC, Community airlines operate only 97.

Mr Van Miert said member states have negotiated disparate bilateral arrangements that often go against the spirit of the single market by distorting competition.

He proposes that member states, acting alone or together, or with third countries, should ask that negotiations be opened with the Commission acting in co-operation with a committee representing airlines, airports and users to produce proposals. EC ministers would then decide whether the Commission should take responsibility for the talks.

Similar arrangements previously have been resisted by national carriers. That companies are now moving towards greater Commission involvement is, Mr Van Miert said, a reflection of the fear that they will unknowingly be cut out of future deals.

British Midland has been awarded two new slots at Brussels' Zaventem airport after the EC Commission rejected a complaint by Sabena that Heathrow had not offered reciprocal rights. The Commission found that Sabena had been offered slots, although at unsociable times because of congestion at Heathrow. The British authorities have been asked to improve their offer to Sabena when conditions allow.