U.S. and European negotiators announced Friday that they'd agreed to let their airlines fly between every city in the European Union and every city in the United States.
The European Union will approve the agreement if the U.S. makes progress on a proposal that would allow more foreign control of U.S. airlines, according to the EU's Air Transport Director Daniel Calleja in a conference call with reporters.
The pact would give U.S. airlines something they've coveted for a long time: more access to Heathrow Airport, Europe's largest gateway for trans-Atlantic flights.
Transport ministers from all 25 European Union countries must approve the agreement. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Byerly said it doesn't require U.S. Senate approval.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said the deal will bring the two continents closer together.
"It provides new opportunities for U.S. and European airlines, healthier competition for a growing travel market and greater connections between cities and towns of all sizes on both sides of the Atlantic," Mineta said in a statement.
The agreement would replace a hodgepodge of restrictive treaties between individual countries and the United States that were negotiated after World War II.
Under those agreements, European airlines can fly to any U.S. airport - but only from airports in their home country.
The new pact would allow every U.S. and European airline to charge whatever they want on trans-Atlantic flights, which could lower fares.
The two sides had broken off talks in June 2004 after two years of negotiations, but resumed them in October. Agreement was reached quickly after the Bush administration proposed on Nov. 2 to give foreign investors in U.S. airlines more latitude to influence management decisions.
That proposal would not change the legal limit of 25 percent foreign ownership in U.S. airlines.
Some members of Congress, though, objected to the Bush administration's plan to ease restrictions on control of airlines.
In a letter dated Friday, 53 Democratic and 22 Republican representatives told Mineta that they strongly opposed the proposal to give foreign owners more control of U.S. airlines. The letter said the proposal "would make fundamental changes to our nation's aviation system, is contrary to recent Congressional mandates in this area, and should not be unilaterally imposed by the Executive Branch."
Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, said the Bush administration caved in after the EU walked away from the previous talks because the issue of foreign ownership and control was off the table.
"This is a sop to the EU and a snub to Congress," Wytkind said of the plan to give foreign owners more control over U.S. airlines.
If approved, the agreement could go into effect in October.
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