EU, US open sky pact under scrutiny

A new agreement opening up the lucrative transatlantic flight market came under scrutiny when Europe’s Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot explained the deal to MEPs in Strasbourg. It allows EU airlines to fly from any city in Europe to one in the US while in turn airports in the EU are opened up to US companies. It could pave the way for cheaper fares and add an extra 26 million passengers to the route but the effect on the environment of more flights has been questioned by some MEPs.

The Chair of the Parliament’s Transport Committee backed the agreement telling the Parliament’s website that it will increase competition among airlines and reduce ticket prices. He called the transatlantic route a “mature market” and that the number of new flights would be “significantly lower” than on emerging world markets. In his view it marks a redistribution of flights rather than a dramatic increase.

Environmental impact questioned

However, despite the apparent liberalisation the US has still retained two important concessions: EU airlines will still not is able to operate internal US flights (i.e. they cannot fly from one US airport to another). In addition, EU companies will only be allowed to purchase 25% of a US airline.

Mr Barrot has long advocated the economic impact of the deal saying it could create 80,000 new jobs and be worth € 12 billion. However, UK Green MEP Caroline Lucas, author of a recent report on aviation, told this website the inevitable increase in flights the deal will bring made it “incompatible” with the aim of cutting greenhouse gas emissions just agreed by EU leaders. Meeting in Brussels on Friday they agreed to a cut of 20% in emissions by 2020 compared to 1990 levels.


Open skies in October?

Aviation currently accounts for just 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions although it is the fastest growing sector. It is regarded as especially polluting because of the large amount of fuel used at high altitude - the thinner air at these levels makes the natural dispersal of harmful emissions much harder. This is one of the reasons Mrs Lucas advocates rejection of the agreement.

Given the complexity of the negotiations and the political sensitivity, Parliament now finds itself with a delicate political balancing act to perform.

Negotiations on the EU-US “Open Skies” agreement have been long and difficult with 11 rounds before agreement was reached. Transport Ministers will review the deal on 22 March and signature is foreseen for 30 April. Should this happen, which seems likely, the agreement will enter into force in October.