Union Blasts Transportation Department's Tentative OK of Virgin America Plan

WASHINGTON_The AFL-CIO on Wednesday criticized the government's tentative OK of startup airline Virgin America's plan to comply with laws limiting foreign control of a domestic air carrier.

America's largest union, which represents 10 million working women and men, called Tuesday's approval by the Transportation Department an attempt to "silence" British billionaire Richard Branson's criticism of a trade agreement relaxing limits on airline service between Europe and the U.S.

European Union transportation ministers are to meet Thursday and are expected to approve the "open skies" pact negotiated with the U.S. that would lift restrictions on what trans-Atlantic routes airlines can offer.

Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO's transportation trades department, said the trade deal and the tentative approval of Virgin America's startup represent a move toward more foreign involvement in U.S. airlines, something that would harm unionized workers.

"We believe that workers are at risk when you allow a foreign interest with a different agenda to take over a U.S. company," Wytkind said.

Virgin America disputed the union's argument, saying its ambitions in the U.S. and the agreement on trans-Atlantic flights were separate issues. Spokesman Gareth Edmonson-Jones said the airline's startup application was "completely unrelated" to the U.S.-European agreement.

"Virgin America is American-owned and American-operated," he said. "It is certainly not Richard Branson's airline."

If European nations and Congress ratify the trans-Atlantic pact, it would allow any airline European or American to fly any route between any city in Europe and any city in America.

The trade deal would mean more competition for Branson's Virgin Atlantic - one of the four carriers currently allowed to fly between the U.S. and London's Heathrow Airport, one of the world's busiest.

But it also could benefit Branson by allowing European companies to own 50 percent of U.S. airlines, rather than the current 25 percent limit, as long as foreign shareholders do not have more than a 25 percent voting stake in U.S. airline. Branson's Virgin Group has a minority stake in Virgin America.

Diplomats said earlier this week they expected the deal to go through despite British worries that allowing more airlines to fly to the U.S. from London Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, would damage the two British-based airlines - British Airways PLC and Virgin Atlantic - that currently enjoy a joint monopoly with two U.S. carriers - AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines - over the lucrative trans-Atlantic routes.