Oberstar Wary of Open Skies Treaty

A House committee chairman says Congress will try to force changes to an aviation treaty with the European Union if the ratified version results in more foreign control of U.S. airlines.

In a letter to the Transportation Department, James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the proposed treaty, known as Open Skies, is ambiguous on the issue of allowing more foreign control of U.S. carriers.

"Without further assurance that the law or policy on foreign control of U.S. airlines will not be changed, we cannot support the agreement," stated the letter, also signed by panel members Jerry F. Costello, D-Ill., the Aviation Subcommittee chairman, and Frank A. LoBiondo, R-N.J.

The treaty language stipulates that rather than setting forth an explicit policy about what constitutes foreign control of a U.S. airline, it would be decided on a case-by-case basis. The language was agreed on March 5 by U.S. and EU negotiators. It must still be adopted by the European Commission later this month and ratified by the Senate.

So far, members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee have not taken a position on the treaty language but in the past have opposed efforts to ease the rules.

Transportation has said the treaty language "clarifies" but does not alter U.S. rules on ownership and control of U.S. airlines. Last year, it proposed a rule that would have explicitly allowed foreign nationals to assume control of a U.S. airline's day-to-day business decisions. Decisions involving security or Pentagon contracts would have fallen to a U.S. citizen.

The department argued the rule would help attract more foreign investment capital to the struggling airline industry.

Lawmakers balked at the change, citing concerns about national security, primarily because U.S. airlines participate in a program under which airlines are contracted to provide aircraft and crews in wartime.

The EU had pushed for the change in exchange for allowing U.S. airlines greater access to lucrative routes at London's Heathrow Airport, and made it a condition of reaching agreement on the treaty.

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