EU: 'Open Skies' Talks on Hold

Talks on an "open skies" air-travel agreement between the United States and Europe are on hold until Washington provides details about how it will remove restrictions on foreign ownership of U.S. airlines, the British transportation minister said Monday.

British Transport Secretary Alistair Darling, who chaired Monday's EU transportation ministers' meeting, said Washington was expected to brief the EU on ownership rule changes on Jan. 6, but major obstacles remained.

"There is one very big item to be resolved and that is airline ownership and control," said Darling.

Ministers decided it was too soon to negotiate a similar agreement with China, he said.

"Matters are not nearly so well developed in relation to China ... To move to a formal mandate to negotiate something at this stage, we thought, was premature," he said.

EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot said talks with the U.S. would take priority.

Earlier talks broke down because the U.S. wanted access to European airports without offering any major concessions, he said.

The U.S. administration said last month it is considering giving foreign investors a say in marketing, flight routes and types of aircraft operated, which might attract foreign capital to U.S. airlines.

In return, Washington wants Europe to open London's Heathrow Airport, Europe's largest gateway for trans-Atlantic flights, to all U.S. carriers.

An "open skies" agreement would bring together the world's two largest aviation markets, allowing EU and U.S. airlines to fly to wherever they want and charge whatever they want on trans-Atlantic flights, a move that could lead to lower ticket prices for passengers.

A new agreement would replace the current web of restrictive treaties between individual countries.

Under the present bilateral pacts, European airlines can fly to any U.S. airport only from airports located in their home country. For example, Germany's Lufthansa AG can only fly to the U.S. from airports based in Germany. Because of this so-called nationality clause, European airlines risk losing U.S. landing rights if they merge - which has led to fragmentation and inefficiency in the European industry.

Also on Monday, the EU transportation ministers endorsed plans for an EU-wide blacklist of airlines that fail to meet international safety standards. The list and ensuing bans are expected to take effect at airports in the 25-nation bloc early next year.

Barrot drafted an EU-wide blacklist plan after a string of plane crashes that claimed hundreds of lives this year. The European Parliament in November already approved the blacklist, which will close loopholes allowing carriers deemed unsafe in one EU member state to operate in another member's country.

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