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PROGRESS towards an “open-skies” agreement on EU-US trans-Atlantic air traffic has been followed in this space since serious negotiations began four years ago. There have been good days and bad days during this period but yesterday in Brussels all 27 EU transport ministers approved the deal hammered out in recent weeks. Essentially this will enable EU airlines to fly directly to any destination in the US and vice-versa for American airlines; trans-Atlantic traffic is likely to grow by 50-70 million passengers in five years, bringing down fares through increased competition.

Britain secured two important concessions before joining the consensus yesterday.
First, the start of the new arrangement will be delayed until March next year by when Heathrow's Terminal 5 should be ready to handle the expected increase in trans-Atlantic traffic; second, the agreement will automatically lapse in 2010 if by then American legislation has not been amended to make it possible for EU airlines to invest more substantially than at present in their US counterparts.

The latter condition is of interest to all EU countries and the British government was wise not to argue the case from the standpoint of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic as it had been urged to do.

This “open skies” deal is a timely one, coming as it does on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the EU's founding Treaty of Rome. It shows what Europe together can achieve.