Euro MPs mount legal challenge to US air travel deal

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The Independent Online

Euro MPs voted to mount a legal challenge to a controversial counter-terrorism deal with America yesterday, defying warnings that the move threatens chaos for transatlantic air travellers and airlines.

Euro MPs voted to mount a legal challenge to a controversial counter-terrorism deal with America yesterday, defying warnings that the move threatens chaos for transatlantic air travellers and airlines.

By a slim margin, the European Parliament decided that Europe's highest court should rule on the EU's undertakings to give full airline passenger data to US security agencies. The deal on information, negotiated between the EU and Washington, is part of a package of increased security measures.

But MEPs are concerned that the plans undermine European civil liberty protections because of a lack of safeguards over the use of the information and its transmission to other agencies. They are also concerned that passengers will have no chance to correct inaccurate data passed to the US.

Yesterday they decided by a majority of 16 votes to challenge the deal in the European Court of Justice. The move infuriated the EU's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, who warned that blocking co-operation with Washington threatened airline chaos and increased queues for travellers arriving in America if the US imposes new restrictions on passengers of European airlines.

He said the consequence would be "complete disarray" with carriers "facing financial chaos", and passengers waiting in long lines at US airports "without [EU] protection". Mr Patten told MEPs: "If we had been through what New York has been through we would want our government to do everything to save our security."

The decision casts legal uncertainty on the EU-US deal. In the short term, the European Commission and the EU member states are likely to proceed with it, pending legal judgment. But if judges rule against the measures, the deal would be plunged into crisis because the US authorities are unlikely to make further concessions.

Under the agreement, 34 types of data can be passed to the US. These include passenger booking information, such as e-mail addresses, phone numbers, credit-card details and dietary requirements, and can be kept for up to 30 months.

Since March last year, airlines including British Airways, Lufthansa and Air France, have faced the prospect of fines of £3,400 per passenger if they fail to provide passenger data within 15 minutes of departure. They are passing the information on but, without the EU-US deal, have no guarantee that they are obeying civil liberty laws.

Graham Watson, leader of the EU Liberal Democrats, said: "This agreement represents a bad deal for privacy which is legally flawed. There are legitimate grounds for requesting the European Court of Justice to rule on the procedure and the substance of the agreement."

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