A deal to solve the transatlantic air security dispute could be agreed and in place as soon as Friday, the European Commission said last night. Hopes of ending the deadlock are pinned on talks in Luxembourg between EU justice ministers on October 6, following after Saturday's breakdown of negotiations in Washington.
The row is over the scale and use of personal European air passenger information passed to the American authorities.
An existing PNR (Passenger Name Records) agreement between EU governments and Washington was declared illegal by European judges earlier this year, after being condemned by human rights campaigners as a breach of privacy laws.
The search for a replacement faltered on Saturday when US officials pushed for wider limits on who could access the information. In particular officials wanted the right to pass it to security agencies in other countries.
But last night a Commission statement held out hope of a deal before European airlines face difficulties.
The Commission is now urging Washington to continue applying safeguards on the use of PNR data to minimise the risk of uncertainty and disruption to EU-US flights'.
Its statement said, 'It is in the interests of all concerned, travellers, airlines, law enforcement agencies and data protection authorities, that a new agreement is concluded as soon possible.'
EU-US co-operation over computerised passenger records has been sensitive since March 2003, when Washington insisted that it would require more data to help counter-terrorism efforts.
Details involved include names of all travellers, telephone numbers, addresses, e-mails, payment information, bank numbers and credit card data - in total 34 fields of data delivered direct from European central reservation systems to US law enforcement databases - within 15 minutes of a US-bound plane taking off from an EU country. Human rights campaigners immediately raised fears of privacy laws and data protection - and renewed them on Saturday after the UK Government reassured air passengers that there should be no transatlantic flight disruption pending a new data deal. The Department of Transport said it had secured an order that means UK planes flying to America escape potential US landing bans.
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It remained uncertain what the legal situation would be for flights until a new agreement comes into force.
The 'Open Skies' deal would replace a web of bilateral deals between Washington and EU governments - which regulate trans-Atlantic air traffic - with a single EU-U.S. deal.
The ruling that the transfer of airline data is unlawful was based on a legal technicality that is likely to be circumvented by a new agreement.
Washington has warned that without the agreement, airlines failing to share passenger information face fines of up to US$6,000 per passenger and the loss of landing rights.